If you’ve ever talked to someone from another continent, chances are they’ve asked you why you do certain things–why do you tailgate, or trick-or-treat, or have a “Sweet Sixteen” party? Chances are you’ve never thought much about it; it never occurred to you that everyday things you consider normal are considered unusual and even exotic in other parts of the world.
One of the great things about North America is that there is a blend of hundreds of cultures, many of which were created in response to colonization and immigration. Our Native Americans, from the U.S, Canada and Mexico, have many distinct cultures, some of which were thankfully preserved despite European colonization. Following colonization, millions of immigrants from all over the world came to North America and brought pieces of their cultures with them. So in a way, North American “culture” is unusual and even exotic because it’s a blend of so many other cultures. As such, it’s not always easy to find the origin of many North American traditions–they could come from literally anywhere.
While many of our traditions today seem perfectly normal, the truth is that many of them are far from it. If our continent is a melting pot, then we have some pretty crazy ingredients thrown into the mix.
Whether it’s the food we eat, the holidays we celebrate, or who we elect as prom king and queen, there are a lot of seemingly-normal things we do in North America that are actually quite bizarre. Let’s take a look at just a few of these abnormal normalities.
15. No White After Labor Day
Believe it or not, this rule originated with other well-to-do women. In the late 1800s, when high society began dividing between old money and new money, old money matrons didn’t want just anyone to waltz into their country club. They developed hundreds of silly little fashion rules–think the Plastics in Mean Girls. How and when you could wear white became part of those rules. White was only acceptable to wear in the late spring and early summer; wearing white at any other time marked you as a social pariah. And if you didn’t? In the words of Gretchen Weiners, “You can’t sit with us.”
Of all the fashion rules, this one has had one of the longest lifespans. Over time, people began marking the white season as beginning on Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day. Over 100 years later, this tradition is finally starting to fall out of favor, but there will always be more Plastics to invent more weird rules.
14. Leif Erikson Day
Unless you’re a Spongebob Squarepants fan, you probably haven’t heard of Leif Erikson Day. As far as North American holidays go, it’s pretty overlooked. And understandably so–even though Leif Erikson “discovered” North America long before Columbus did, settlers gradually drew back from modern day Canada and returned to Greenland; the last records from these settlers are from the 14th century, when the Black Plague cut off all contact between the settlers and their motherland. By the time the Danish sent an envoy to see if the colony was still there in 1715, the settlers had disappeared entirely.
Nevertheless, a movement in the late 1800s began to acknowledge that Vikings had been the first Europeans in the New World. Norwegian-American scholars who identified strongly with the saga of Leif Erikson “discovering” North America felt that Leif Erikson was a nationalist icon, and in 1925 President Calvin Coolidge acknowledged Leif Erikson as the true discoverer of North America. In 1930, Wisconsin adopted Leif Erikson Day as a holiday. The selected date was October 9th–not because that date held any significance for Leif Erikson’s discovery (though the saga does indicate that he landed in late fall). October 9th was selected because that was the date that the immigration ship Restauration left Norway bound for the United States.
13. Cinco De Mayo
Believe it or not, Cinco de Mayo isn’t just a day to get drunk and eat tacos! And contrary to popular belief, the holiday wasn’t created as an attempt to appreciate Mexican culture, although that is what the holiday has come to symbolize over the years. Some mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day, but that isn’t true either; Mexican Independence Day falls on September 16th. No, May 5th is significant because it marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla.
During part of the nineteenth century, Mexico was occupied by France. The Mexican army was ambushed, poorly equipped, and overall no match for Napoleon III’s well-prepared French troops. Therefore, it came as a huge surprise when Mexico’s army of 2,000 men was able to defeat France’s 6,000 man army at the Battle of Puebla.
12. Thanksgiving In The United States
So where did the concept of Thanksgiving come from? If the pilgrims and Native Americans didn’t sit down to give thanks for food and friendship, why do we have a similar meal today?
The idea of a day of thanksgiving actually originated during the reign of Henry VIII, but it wasn’t just one day. The Catholic Church had ordained 95 religious holidays in the calendar year, as well as the 52 Sundays when parishioners were required to attend mass. The English Reformation was able to reduce the religious holidays down to 27, but Puritans believed that holidays should be abolished altogether and replaced with days of giving thanks by fasting. Rather than sit down to a sumptuous meal, the Puritans believed that God-fearing Christians should abstain from eating or enjoying anything altogether. Days of thanksgiving also came during times of hardship, such as droughts or a poor harvest.
So when we look at the first written mentions of a day of thanksgiving, it isn’t a particularly special event–it’s pilgrims who were refusing to eat. Quite the opposite of the modern Thanksgiving, where we stuff ourselves with good food!
11. Thanksgiving In Canada
The United States isn’t the only North American country to celebrate Thanksgiving. Canada has a Thanksgiving holiday that falls on the second Monday of October (as opposed to the U.S., whose Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November). This holiday is most commonly attributed to an explorer named Martin Frobisher. Frobisher had tried to find a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean, but the journey was so treacherous that when he reached present-day Nunavut, he organized a formal ceremony to give thanks to God for delivering him alive and well to the New World.
Canadian Thanksgiving can also be traced to the days of the early French settlers in the late seventeenth century. Traditionally, these settlers held a celebration of thankfulness at the end of each harvest. Later, some of these settlers moved south into New England and continued the tradition of giving thanks at the end of each harvest. Imagine how surprised the Puritans must have been when the newcomers gave thanks by eating instead of starving!
10. Sweet Sixteen/Quinceañeras
While not as popular as they once were, many American and Canadian teenagers have had some kind of sweet sixteen party. Today, these parties are to celebrate a new stage in a person’s life. This was not always the case. Traditionally celebrated by young women, sweet sixteen parties are the modern equivalent of a debutante ball. In the Victorian era, young women would have coming out parties and debuts to mark their entrance into society, and therefore their eligibility as wives.
Quinceañeras have a similar background, but they go back much further than the Victorian era. In the Aztec Empire in roughly 500 BC, fifteen was considered the age of adulthood. While boys were becoming warriors, girls were becoming wives and mothers. It meant that the young woman was now ready to marry. The tradition remained even after Spanish colonization and Catholic indoctrination. Where American and Canadian debutante balls have become less extravagant over the years, Mexican quinceañeras have become more extravagant- a modest celebration today can cost $5,000.
9. Cookie Table
If you’ve gone to a wedding in Pennsylvania, there is a very strong chance there was a cookie table at the reception. And for those of you who haven’t, yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a table laden with nothing but cookies. While no one is exactly complaining about it (if anything, some of us would be okay with replacing the open bar with an open cookie table), you have to admit that the idea is kind of out there. Traditionally, wedding guests receive a slice of cake, and lately more weddings have started making cupcakes. But cookies?
While there are traces of the tradition coming from Italy and Greece, the more likely cause for this tradition originating in southwestern Pennsylvania is because of the deeply religious and therefore anti-alcohol population. Rather than having an open bar, conservative Pennsylvanians likely wanted a treat that didn’t lead to sinning. Or something like that.
The piñata is most commonly associated with Mexico, and, indeed, there are records of a Mesoamerican tradition of filling a clay pot with treasures and decorating it with feathers. Blindfolded participants would poke the pot with a stick, and when it broke the treasures would fall at the feet of the selected idol as a sort of offering.
When the Spanish came to Mexico in the 16th century, they brought over their own version of the piñata, an earthenware pot borrowed from China. The Chinese version was usually shaped like an ox or a bull to celebrate the new year, and instead of candy, it was full of seeds. The piñata was introduced to Europe sometime in the 14th century. The Italians called it pignatta, which roughly translates to “earthenware cooking pot”. When Franciscan monks saw that the Native Mexicans had their own pignatta, they co-opted it (as the Catholic church did with so many non-Christian traditions) so that it would serve their purposes. The Franciscan monks created a seven-pointed piñata and claimed that it represented evil while the goodies inside represented temptation. The blindfolded person represented faith. After being turned 33 times (one turn for each year of Christ’s life), the blindfolded participant would beat the piñata until the treats fell out. This was supposed to represent the blessings from Christ that could be reaped if one lived a faithful and devoted life.
7. Marco Polo
Remember this game? A crowd of kids gather in a pool. One kid closes his or her eyes and shouts, “Marco!” The other kids stay just out of reach and respond, “Polo!” The kid with their eyes closed has to try to catch another kid by following their voices.
Supposedly, the game originated with the actual Marco Polo. One night while traveling, the explorer fell asleep on his horse and fell behind. When he woke later that night, he thought he heard voices ahead saying, “Marco.” He shouted, “Polo!” and tried to locate them without being able to see. It’s hard to say whether or not this is a real story, and, if it is, why it wasn’t until the 1960s that children began to play this game, and more so, why they chose to play it in pools.
6. New Year’s Food
Many cultures–not just in North America–have specific foods that they eat in celebration of a new year. Greens are often said to bring wealth, and pork is sometimes said to bring prosperity. Because America is a virtual melting pot, many of these new year’s superstitions are honored in the United States today, and many have been given their own variations; for instance, many people in the southern states don’t believe that just any greens will suffice for wealth- it has to be collard greens.
There is one food, however, that originated right here in the US of A. Black-eyed peas.
Until the Civil War, black-eyed peas were only considered fit for animals or slaves. When Union General Sherman raided Confederate supplies, his men took everything except for the black-eyed peas because they felt that their horses were well-fed and they didn’t need the extra baggage. Starving Confederate troops survived a harsh winter on black-eyed peas and “feasted” on the peas on New Year’s. Because they would have died had they not eaten the peas, the Confederates considered them lucky. Today, southerners eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s to bring themselves a bit of luck.
5. St. Patty’s Day Celebrations
St. Patty’s Day is probably America’s favorite non-American holiday. Every year, people with Irish ancestry (and often people without Irish ancestry) deck themselves out in green, call in sick to work, and drink until they physically can’t anymore. Some children are visited by “leprechauns” who leave candy and gold coins. Tattoo parlors sometimes offer free shamrock tattoos. The Chicago River is dyed green. America loves St. Patrick’s Day.
It’s surprising, then, to learn that St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t always the fun and festive holiday we celebrate today. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was a solemn occasion meant to commemorate and honor the life of Saint Patrick, a freed slave who had converted much of Ireland to Christianity. When Irish immigrants came over to the United States, they brought the holiday with them. In true American fashion, Irish-Americans decided to hold festivities and even parades to honor their motherland. Before Irish immigrants came to America, there were no St. Patrick’s Day parades or parties–a far cry from the way Americans go hard for the holiday today!
4. Fraternities And Hazing
Fraternities are distinctly American. So American, in fact, that the first one, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded at William and Mary one year before the American Revolution began. Phi Beta Kappa was a secret society that served as an intersection between dining clubs and literary societies. As its Latin root suggests, this fraternity was established to create a brotherhood amongst students. These “brothers” would eat together, study together, discuss art and literature and politics together, and in many cases even live together. Because of this intimate arrangement, fraternities had a rigorous screening process to ensure that their fellow brothers deserved to be there. Many of these fraternity brothers were also Freemasons, so there had to be an element of the ridiculous involved. Rushing could be as simple as pledging money–hence the reason so many candidates are called “pledges”–or it could involve complicated rituals. Early fraternities were heavily inspired by both their Freemason counterparts and also by ancient Greek “mystery” societies. At some point, the rituals became less about mystery and legacy and more about humiliating the new pledges to see how much they could take. Stay classy, guys.
While Halloween is not an inherently North American holiday, and while going door to door and asking for candy is also not exactly American, trick-or-treating as we know it today is an overwhelmingly North American practice. Since the 1920s, children have donned costumes and gone door-to-door asking for candy on October 31st. But why?
If you’re well-versed in Halloween movies, you’ll know that All Hallow’s Eve originated in Celtic culture as Samhain, a festival to mark the beginning of winter. Because this was a transitional period, the Celtic peoples believed that it was a liminal time and therefore more susceptible to spirits walking among the earth. To prevent any mischief or ill-will, mortals would make offerings of food and drink to appease the spirits. Later, people began wearing masks and impersonating spirits. So far from disrespectful, it was actually believed that this impersonation would both appease the spirits and protect the mortal accepting the offering on their behalf.
When the Catholic church absorbed Celtic culture in an attempt at conversion, Christians spent their Allhallowtide sharing “soul cakes” with their neighbors. These soul cakes were believed to be offerings that would appease the dead. People would go around and shout up to their neighbors, “Soul, souls, for a soul-cake; Pray you good mistress, a soul-cake!”
“Souling” as a Christian practice did not last through the Middle Ages, but the Celtic practice of impersonating spirits saw a resurgence in the 18th century in parts of Great Britain. There were many variations; sometimes masked visitors were expected to recite verses or perform tricks in exchange for treats. More often than not, the expectation was that the masked visitors were “spirits” and if they were not appeased with food or drinks, they would create mischief for whoever had refused them.
The first reported “guising” in North America came in Ontario in 1911; by the 1920s, it became common practice for children all over North America to dress up and go door-to-door asking for candy. “Trick or treat” first appeared in 1927, when costumed children were heard demanding it from their neighbors. The demand was so popular that the act is now known as trick-or-treating. It isn’t too different from Samhain–people offer impersonators treats, and if they refuse, the “spirit” will create mischief–usually in the form of toilet paper hanging from trees and eggs sliding down windows.
2. Day Of The Dead
Día de Muertos, often referred to as Día de los Muertos, is one of Mexico’s more well-known holidays. Before Spanish colonization, the holiday took place at the beginning of summer; when Spanish colonists brought their religion with them, the date was shifted to the beginning of November to coincide with All Souls’ Day, the holy day following the not-so-holy All Hallow’s Eve. Before colonization, many regions in Mexico spent the entire month of August honoring their ancestors. These festivities often honored a goddess known as “The Lady of the Dead.”
When the Spanish colonized Mexico, they combined Day of the Dead with the All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls’ Day festivities. The month-long celebration was condensed into three days. The first day, October 31st, is often called Día de los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels. On this day, children make an altar to invite the souls of dead children to visit. The next day, November 1st, is called Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents. Sometimes it is referred to it by its older name of All Souls’ Day. It is believed that on this day, adult spirits will visit their living loved ones. The third day, November 2nd, is called Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos, or Day of the Dead. On this day, people visit the resting places of their loved ones and celebrate. In this way, people are able to feel positive about death rather than afraid of it. Dying isn’t a permanent separation, only a temporary one.
1. Prom King and Queen
In almost every teen movie, there’s a big to-do about prom and who’s going to be king and queen. Of all the high school dances, prom is the most important–for many teenagers, it isn’t just a dance. It’s an important transition into the adult world.
Historians believe proms began as early as the late 1800s and served as an alternative to a debutante ball, especially as less students attended boarding and finishing schools and more began to attend public high schools. Prom was an affordable alternative to expensive debutante balls and coming out parties; gradually, as debutante balls became less frequent, students began to look forward to prom as their introduction to society. In the 1920s and 1930s, prom became part of a McCarthy-era attempt to enforce a heterosexual agenda. Students were encouraged to attend with dates (of the opposite sex, of course) and wear distinctly gender-conforming clothing. To top it all off, schools began the practice of electing a prom king and queen to further enforce “heteronormativity.” Because prom was considered an introduction to the adult world, schools believed that enforcing strict gender roles would keep their students straight. Many schools today still believe in enforcing these strict gender roles, hence the reason why so many students are turned away for bringing a date of the same gender or not wearing gender-conforming clothing, and also why most schools still elect a prom king and queen.