The definition of “custom” is “a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.”
What makes customs so interesting is how they differ from place to place and group to group. What is totally acceptable to a group of people in a particular society might be completely inappropriate in a different setting, time period, or in a different community.
If you travel the world you will find unique customs nearly everywhere you go. If you want to fit in with the locals, consider doing research before you leave, so you can adhere to some of their customs and avoid embarrassment. Perhaps you will be invited to participate in some of these fascinating and truly outrageous customs around the globe!
In China, it is customary that when a woman conceives a child, her husband carries her over hot coals. Why?
This unique custom serves a few purposes. Some believe that a successful journey over the coals will ensure the woman has an easy, less painful labor. For others, it is a show of solidarity between a husband and wife, the husband taking on his own pain and hardship in sympathy with his pregnant wife. This show of compassion and love is thought to solidify the family bond.
The Thaipusam festival or the festival of piercing is a custom in Thailand. This is a frenzied, spectacular scene where participants pierce parts of their faces and bodies with swords, skewers and hooks. They also sometimes practice other forms of bodily mutilation. Some participants also make a show of pulling heavy objects with hooks attached to their piercings.
This festival is celebrated by Tamils in January or February to honor the son of Shiva, and the Hindu God of war, Murugan. Lord Murugan allegedly was gifted a spear he used to defeat the demon Soorapadman. Worshippers honor Lord Muragan and pray that he will give them strength to battle their internal and external demons. The piercings are a way to show devotion and gratitude.
This baby jumping custom dates back to the 1600s and combines Catholic and Pagan traditions. During the El Colacho festival, men in red and yellow masks representing the devil, run through the streets insulting and whipping villagers. Drummers then announce the arrival of “the pious men” who come to drive away the devil.
What happens next? Babies born during the prior year are placed on a mattress in the middle of the street. The “devils” then leap over the babies. Why? Some people believe the devils absorb the sins of the babies and protect them from misfortune. The babies are then sprinkled with rose petals and claimed by their parents.
In Borneo, it is customary for newlywed couples of the Tidong tribe are to refrain from going to the bathroom for three days after their wedding. Why?
Refraining from emptying yourself is thought to strengthen the married couple’s bond. Some people also believe that relieving yourself after the wedding will bring unhappiness, infertility and death.
At least the wedding guests can go to the bathroom!
Chinese society has many polite customs that surround dining. For example, no one sits or eats until the host or guest has taken his or her place at the table and started the meal. The host serves tea beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest at the table.
But the Chinese also have an interesting custom of slurping noodles. If you are in a ramen restaurant or being served ramen in someone’s home get ready for a noisy feast! Slurping noodles is a must if you are enjoying this delicious dish- it is a fun way to eat and lets your host know you love the meal!
If you visit South Korea, you might be tempted to leave a tip in a restaurant like you would in the US. Don’t! Tipping in South Korea is insulting. Workers in the food industry receive very fair wages and take tremendous pride in their work. Trying to tip them will be met likely be met with anger not gratitude – despite your good intentions!
Another custom in China is eating the placenta after giving birth. This is a custom that dates back over 2000 years. Eating placenta, which is called a temporary organ, is thought to provide a multitude of health benefits including helping retain a youthful appearance.
This is one custom that has slowly made its way to other parts of the worlds. It is still, however, considered “weird” by many – even though the Kardashians have done it!
The “Mano po” is a Filipino custom. It is an “honoring gesture” used to show respect and request a blessing from your elders.
The younger person bows toward the elder and presses their forehead into the elder’s hand. Sometimes, the younger person asks permission before initiating this gesture.
If you visit Japan you will be amazed by how quiet it is when you use its incredibly efficient subway system. Despite the crowds, the only people who make noise on the subway are usually tourists and other foreigners. This is very different than the loud subways we take in places like NYC.
Also, unlike in the US, when you ride the Japanese subway, don’t expect anyone to respect your personal space. Subway cars in Japan are so “efficient” that there are people employed as subway pushers. Their job? To push more and more passengers into the subway cars to ensure maximum capacity – regardless of how uncomfortable it might be for some riders.
The Merina tribe of Madagascar exhumes the dead bodies of their ancestors for family reunions. Famadahana or “turning of the bones,” happens every five to seven years. They unearth the bodies of their loved ones, often from family crypts, change their burial shrouds, and dance with the corpses. The bodies are returned to the crypts at sundown and placed face down along with money and alcohol. The crypts are then sealed for another five to seven years.
The Merina tribe believes that until the bodies are fully decomposed, their ancestors are still part of life on earth. They do not move on to a “second life” until decomposition is complete.
Polterabend is a pre-wedding custom In Germany that is supposed to bring good luck to the married couple. There is an old German saying ““Scherben bringen Glück,” which means “shards bring luck.” People take this very seriously.
Polterabend traditionally took place the day before the wedding. Now, however, it might occur at any time within a week or so of the big day. It usually happens outside the bride’s parents house. People come with dishes, planters, even toilets to smash! (no glass or mirrors!) It is an event filled with enthusiastic well-wishers, food, and drink!
Polterabend is filled with other traditions- chicken soup is the food of choice which symbolizes fertility. And, the bride and groom are responsible for sweeping up the mess, an act that symbolizes the two working together to overcome challenges. In some parts of Germany, it is customary to burn the groom’s pants and nail the bride’s shoe to a board and burn that too, so they can’t escape the upcoming nuptials! Guests then bury the ashes with a bottle of alcohol. A year later, they all dig up the treasure and celebrate again!
Most people in the US don’t think twice about sprinkling some extra salt and pepper to their meal to add more flavor. However, if you are invited for a meal in Egypt, think again! It is insulting to ask for salt in Egypt. If you are in a restaurant and there is no salt on the table, don’t ask for it.
Be especially careful if you are eating in someone’s home! Think about it, someone went through the trouble of making you a meal – it is precisely as they want it to be. Egyptians take great insult if you ask for salt. It means you do not think the food they prepared is sufficiently flavorful.
This tradition dates back hundreds of years. If you’re from Denmark, and you are unmarried when you turn 25, expect to be covered in cinnamon by the day’s end. Not just sprinkled with cinnamon. Doused is a better word.
The Danish people take this tradition to the limits, thankfully with a sense of humor. Sometimes, “friends” add eggs to the mix to help the cinnamon adhere to the poor victim. Clearly this is all just for fun and a way to mark a big birthday. The average age of marriage in Denmark for men is 34 and women is 32.
Here is a custom you should know about if you ever go to Venezuela. Be late. That’s right. Don’t be on time for your appointments. It is considered rude to be on time in Venezuela.
People familiar with social customs in Venezuela advise visitors to arrive 15 minutes late for appointments. Arriving earlier than that gives the impression that you are greedy or inappropriately eager.
This is no ordinary coming of age custom. No bar mitzvah or quincenera here. While “becoming an adult” celebrations provide all sorts of good vibes for the participants, this Brazilian custom focuses more on the pain than the pleasure.
To become a man in the Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil, you must earn the right by proving you are ready to tackle adulthood and its challenges. How? Beginning as young as 12, boys must gather bullet ants from the Amazon forest, put them in gloves, and wear the ant-filled gloves for 10 minutes….20 times! The boys must perform a dance with the gloves on all while being stung and bitten repeatedly. Sources say one bullet and bite is 30 times worse than a bee sting. Members of this tribe believe that suffering or effort is necessary to achieve anything meaningful.
Another custom that involves babies- this one has been in existence for hundreds of years! In rural areas of India, some priests throw people’s babies from 30 feet above into a sheet held by a waiting crowd below. Why?
This custom originated during a time when infant mortality was very high in India. Legend states that Hindu and Muslims were told by a saint to throw their babies from a rooftop or shrine as a way to show their faith in god. The saints told them god would magically provide a sheet to catch the baby. Not sure how many babies survived back then but aren’t you glad they bring their own sheet now?
Many Muslim sects celebrate Muharram, which is a day of mourning for the death of Muhammad’s grandson. In parts of the world, such as India, some men observe the day by “working themselves into a frenzy,” and whipping themselves with very sharp objects. It is a “celebration” that involves self-flagellation with chains, knives, and other blades to show solidarity with their deceased ancestors. Other mourners customarily beat on their chests with their fists.
The people of the Yanomami Tribe live in the Amazon rainforest between Venezuela and Brazil. If you every found yourself off the beaten path and hanging out in one of their hundreds of villages, you might want to understand their funeral customs. They will shock you.
Let’s just say it: They eat their dead family members. It is the custom of the Yanomami to cover the dead with leaves for about a month and a half. They then collect the bones to cremate. Here comes the good part – then they collect the ashes and turn them into a soup for the whole community to enjoy. Why? they believe that by consuming the ashes of the deceased, their spirit remains alive. Also, the deceased’s spirit won’t rest until the soup is consumed.
This custom is widely known as endocannibalism.
Are you going to a wedding in Scotland? Bring some extra trash for your engaged friends.
In parts of Ireland and Scotland, it is customary to kidnap and “blacken” the bride and groom before the wedding. Supposedly, it is to bring good luck. It looks like just a way to go hog wild and settle some scores.
The community plans the kidnapping and brings the goods: everything from molasses to cow dung to fish guts, dog food, and rotten eggs. This custom takes disgusting to a whole new level.
The Dani people have a long-standing custom surrounding the death of their loved ones.
When their loved ones die, the upper half of the woman’s finger is amputated in a practice called Ikipalin. This ritual is presumed to ward off evil spirits and symbolize the pain of mourning. The tops of the fingers are amputated in various ways including using a sharp stone, a rope to cut of the circulation, or even biting a small finger.
The Indonesian government made the custom of Ikipalin illegal a few years ago but sources suggest that the Dani people continue to practice finger amputations.
The traditional custom or “art” of foot binding – to create women with lotus feet has been practiced in China for centuries.
Foot binding restricts the growth of women’s feet. It is a very painful process that after breaking the arches toes, binds the toes almost to the bottom of the foot. It seems like nothing more than a painful, torturous process of disfigurement. But, studies suggest that foot binding was a custom because men preferred women with small feet. Tiny- bound feet represented refinement and desirability for marriage.
Other historians claim this tradition had economic roots and that young women with bound feet were readily available to do important hand work.
This custom of foot binding in China ended in 1950.