Have you ever wondered why when an infant burps after their morning bottle we all think it’s so cute? Yet, forty years later, the same guy belching after his eighteenth tallboy is absolutely disgusting? Why does a case of unbridled hiccups crack up everyone at the dinner table, but a well-placed air biscuit can clear the room? Like most other societies, American customs have resulted from generations of rules, laws, faux pas and in some cases, no reason at all.
Many of our customs date far back before you were even a twinkle in your mother’s eye. These were times of unsophisticated knowledge and religious beliefs. Mores and values were often steeped in superstition and fear. For instance, people saying “God bless you” after a sneeze, is a byproduct of the epidemics that devastated entire countries during the Middle Ages. Sneezing was usually the first sign that the victim was coming down with the bubonic plague. Friends and family would mutter, “God bless you,” just before sprinting for the safety of the nearest dungeon. I’m happy to say that some of these customs still exist today.
Each civilization had their own unique customs. In ancient Japan, public contests were held in small towns to see who could “break wind” the loudest and longest. Winners were awarded prizes and great acclaim, of course, yards away from the nearest open flame. In some parts of Java, couples had sex in the fields to promote crop growth (sometimes called “plowing the back 40”). And in other cultures, the wedding cake was originally thrown at the bride and groom, instead of eaten by them.
At one time in India, a fiancé was required to deflower his future bride post-mortem if she died before the wedding. The girl could not be cremated until this ritual was carried out in front of the village priest. The Ankole people of Uganda took their bedroom responsibilities seriously. One custom required that the aunt of the groom teach the prospective bride everything she knew about pleasing a man – both in and out of the bedroom. In the case of slow learners, aunts would often share the bed with the couple on their wedding night – just to make sure the bride got everything right. On the flip side, the best gift that the father of the groom could give his son was assistance by sleeping with the bride before the wedding night. And you thought your in-laws were bad!
The Tidong from northern Borneo have an uncomfortable wedding custom that dictates that neither the bride nor the groom can use the bathroom for the three days leading up to the wedding ceremony – no urinating, defecating or bathing. It’s thought that the practice leads to a long, happy and fertile marriage – and helps to conserve on toilet paper.
Blessing the new couple takes a number of forms, depending on where you’re married. In Tudor times, guests would throw their shoes at the bride and groom as they fled their wedding celebration. Anyone hit by these flying projectiles inherited good luck. During Anglo Saxon times, the groom would establish his authority over the household by striking the bride with a shoe. And, in Scotland, guests revel in “Blackening the Bride,” an old tradition of dousing the bride in a stinky mixture of eggs, flour, sauces and feathers, then parading her around town as the wedding guests beat on bowls and drums.
In addition to unusual wedding customs, many parts of the world have enjoyed practices that would undoubtedly be difficult to accept in America. In certain parts of Greece, people would spit three times in the face of anyone deserving a compliment. The purpose of spitting was to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.
And, in Turkey during the 16th and 17th centuries, anyone caught drinking coffee was put to death. It’s a good thing Starbucks waited a few hundred years before hiring their first Barista.
Now, before you judge other countries harshly, think about some of the laws that used to (or still do) exist in the United States:
- Having sexual relations with a porcupine is illegal in Florida.
- Every citizen of Kentucky is required to take at least one bath a year.
- It’s illegal to hunt camels in the state of Arizona.
- In Arkansas, a man is free to beat his wife once a month.
- It is a misdemeanor in California to shoot any game from a moving vehicle unless the target is a whale.
- Cat owners of Sterling, Colorado must insure that if their cat goes outside unattended, it is equipped with a tail light.
- Citizens of Devon, Connecticut are prohibited from walking backwards after sunset.
- Anyone getting married on a dare in Delaware has grounds for an annulment.
- It is against the law for Florida residents to dream about another man’s wife or cow.
- You cannot tie your giraffe to a telephone pole in Georgia.
- Twins in Hawaii cannot work for the same company.
- In Idaho, boxes of candy given as romantic gifts must weight at least 50 lbs.
- Hat pins, like switchblade knives, are considered illegal, concealed weapons in Chicago.
- Gary, Indiana theaters prohibit anyone from attending within four hours of eating onion or garlic.
- Iowa laws prohibit any man with a moustache from kissing a woman in public.
- Concealed bean snappers are illegal in Wichita, Kansas.
- In Kentucky, it’s illegal for women to marry the same man four times.
- Louisiana laws prohibit anyone from gargling in public or wearing an alligator costume.
- Portland, Maine men may not tickle women under their chins with a feather duster.
- In Maryland, it’s illegal to mistreat oysters (except to eat them).
- Boston churchgoers risk arrest if they eat peanuts in church.
- Detroit residents may not make love in their car, unless it’s parked on their property.
- In International Falls, Minnesota, owners of dogs can be fined for allowing their pets to chase cats up telegraph poles.
- Oxford, Mississippi law forbids anyone from spitting on the sidewalks.
- In Excelsior Springs, Missouri, it is illegal to make a squirrel worry.
- A woman’s clothes must weigh more than 3 lbs 2 oz before she can legally dance on a Helena, Montana saloon table.
- Lehigh, Nebraska law prohibits anyone from selling donut holes.
- In Las Vegas, Nevada, it is prohibited to pawn your dentures.
- Residents of New Hampshire may not dye their margarine pink.
- Trenton, New Jersey law makes it illegal to throw bad pickles into the street.
- In Carrizozo, New Mexico, it is illegal for women to appear unshaven in public.
- A New York City law allows both men and women to ride the subway topless.
- Asheville, North Carolina residents are prohibited from sneezing within city limits.
- Residents of North Dakota are prohibited from falling asleep with their shoes on.
- Ohio law prohibits anyone from fishing for whales on Sundays.
- Cars must be tethered outside of Oklahoma buildings.
- Portland, Oregon residents are prohibited from whistling underwater.
- In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, people are banned from putting pretzels in bags.
- In Rhode Island, it’s illegal to throw pickle juice while riding on a trolley.
- South Carolina residents must be 18 years of age to play pinball.
- South Dakota law prohibits anyone from falling asleep in a cheese factory.
- Tennessee fishermen are prohibited from lassoing fish.
- In many parts of Texas, it is illegal to sell one’s eye.
- Birds have the right of way on Utah highways.
- Vermont women must get written permission from their husbands before wearing false teeth.
- Unmarried Virginia residents having sex, risk arrest under a class 4 misdemeanor.
- Lynden, Washington residents are prohibited from dancing and drinking in the same establishment.
- Snoozing on a train is illegal in West Virginia.
- Women in St. Croix Wisconsin may not wear red clothing in public.
- It is illegal to tickle women in Wyoming.
Many of these laws remain on the books to this day. Why? Who knows? But just as soon as they decide to remove it from law, someone out in Arizona is going to wing a camel while flying out of Phoenix on Interstate 10.
Written for and excerpted from Armchair Reader The Gigantic Reader – West Side Publishing (September 7, 2009)