Do You Know the History of These Common Customs?


By: John Miller

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

For thousands of years, we humans have cultivated a vast array of habits that guide our social norms. These customs give us a foundation for daily life and in special times of celebration, grieving, and accomplishment. Do you really know anything about the history of customs around the world?

Some customs are so common we hardly even think about them. In the United States, for example, people often greet each other with handshakes. In Europe, however, cheek kissing is a preferred greeting. Do you understand why these societies developed these particular habits?

Religion, of course, dictates many of our routines. In many countries, women must cover themselves head to toe in special garments. Yet in the West, this practice is almost unheard-of. Do you recall just why that might be?

On Christmas Eve, American kids leave cookies and milk for Santa Claus. And on Easter Morning, children wake up with expected gifts from a magical bunny. On Halloween, they don scary (or funny) costumes and stalk the night for treats. All of these traditions have some root in history.

Take our common customs quiz now and see if you know why we humans do these strange and silly things. Maybe you’ll know exactly how the high-five greeting came to be, or maybe you’ll be crushed in the running of the bulls!

Why do people kiss under mistletoe?

Mistletoe was historically meant to ward off various evils and disasters, but it also had a reputation for increasing livestock fertility. In short, it became associated with supposed aphrodisiac effects, which then influenced human kissing behavior.


Weddings typically include a best man. Why?

In the olden days, weddings were often regarded as business decisions, and sometimes people observing the transaction got riled up. The best man's job was to protect the groom from harm.


Why do Americans stand around waiting to see if a groundhog will see its shadow in February?

Many years ago in Germany, the locals used hedgehogs as a sort of measuring stick for how long and brutal the winter would be. The tradition carried over into America, where groundhogs might mean plentiful sunshine … or six more weeks of blizzards.


Why should you avoid picking your nose in America?

Everyone has boogers. In America, you should really avoid digging around in your nostrils in public, lest you be considered childish.


Spain's famous running of the bulls started due to what tradition?

In ancient Spain, it was common for locals to run bulls from their pens to a bullfighting ring. Eventually, the concept morphed into the now famous bull running escapades, where people are commonly injured or even killed while trying to dodge the huge, hairy beasts.


In Greece, why is there a history of spitting in the direction of the bride on her wedding day?

In Greece, spitting in the general direction of the bride is meant to keep evil spirits at bay. So if you despise the bride, withhold your saliva and she'll instantly be attacked by demons.


What's the purpose of Russia's Day of Conception?

This custom has a very specific purpose: babies. Russia's declining birth rate is a real problem, so the government implemented an official Day of Conception, when couples can leave work for romantic interludes.


In South Korea, you should avoid writing someone's name in _____.

Don't write a living person's name in red ink in South Korea. It's considered offensive -- red ink is an ominous substance, one that may be a harbinger of death.


Why do people in the Middle East refrain from using their left hands for eating?

In the Middle East, most people use their left hands to wipe themselves after using the toilet. So, that hand is regarded as unclean for the purpose of eating.


Where did the common "pinky swear" come from?

In Japan, some hardcore gangster types would pinky swear as part of their commitment to a deal. If one person broke the deal, the other had the right to cut off their pinky finger. Fortunately, American kids don't tend to take pinky swearing to that extreme. Unless you live in Iowa -- those kids are brutal.


In many Arab and Buddhist countries, it's rude to show the bottoms of your feet. Why?

In many countries, such as in the Middle East, you simply don't show people the soles of your feet, which are considered the dirtiest part of the body.


Why do we make make New Year's resolutions?

The Romans had a god named Janus, who had two heads -- one gazing into the past and one peering into the future. Janus helped humans review their past year and look forward to the next, swearing off of the pepperoni pizza and beer ... for three days, anyway.


If you try to tip a server in Japan, how might you be perceived?

Servers in Japan take great pride in their work. They don't need your tip to provide more motivation, so if you give them a tip, they're likely to be very insulted.


What's one reason the Japanese noisily slurp their noodles?

In Japan, many diners slurp noodles straight from the bowl in noisy manner. It's not rude -- it's one way to express that they're really enjoying their food.


The candles on a birthday cake are probably meant to help the cake symbolize what?

A round birthday cake topped with glowing candles sort of resembles the moon. The entire production, then, might have started as an offering to a moon god.


Why do Americans typically vote on a Tuesday in November?

In America's farm history, November meant that most crops had already been harvested from the fields, but roads were still passable because winter snows hadn't yet started in earnest. Weekends weren't possible due to the Sabbath, so Tuesday won out.


What's one reason that many Muslim women wear hijabs over their heads?

In many parts of the Muslim world, women are expected to express extreme modesty by covering most of their bodies, including their heads. There are also a variety of religious reasons for this style of dress.


How did the practice of tipping begin?

In the 1600s, tipping settled in as a custom in England, as guests would leave tips to the servants in the homes of their hosts. Since then, tipping has evolved in many different ways all over the world.


Why do Spanish people leap over babies during a Baby Jumping festival?

At the Baby Jumping Festival of Castrillo de Murcia, the Spanish literally jump over babies. A man dressed as the devil does the jumping, and the act is supposed to absolve the babies of sin.


In Greece, parents take their children's baby teeth and throw them onto the roof. Why?

Americans place children's teeth under a pillow. The Greeks throw those teeth onto the roof for good luck.


Before the "high-five," there was the ______.

The high-five is a fairly modern invention. It sprang from an African-American greeting -- the low-five.


Why does Thailand hold an annual Monkey Buffet Festival, in which they treat local monkeys to a lavish buffet?

In Thailand monkeys roam the cities, and the locals feed them a massive buffet. Why? To bring good luck to the community.


In Brazil, why do young men in the Satare Mawe tribe put their hands in a basket filled with bullet ants, which have a terribly painful sting?

Boys in the Satare Mawe tribe must pass an excruciating initiation ritual, in which they purposely subject themselves to bullet ant venom. If the "bullet" part didn't already give it away, the stings are one of the most painful in the animal kingdom.


In the Middle Ages, parents often burned their children's baby teeth. Why?

Centuries ago, many European parents burned their children's teeth. The practice was meant to ensure that the child would have a safe and happy afterlife. And if those toddlers didn't stop screaming at the dinner table? That afterlife was coming sooner rather than later.


In some parts of China, brides purposely _____ for about a month before their wedding.

An ancient ritual in parts of China finds brides crying for about a month before their weddings. Those who didn't embrace the crying ritual were scorned by other locals.


In Germany's Polterabend custom, families gather to break ______ before a wedding.

The Polterabend dictates that the uniting families come together before a wedding to break porcelain items. Then, the couple symbolically gathers the pieces, an act that shows how to work together to make amends. No word on whether porcelain toilets are shattered as part of this custom.


In some countries, women's bodies are adorned with henna before a wedding. Why?

In some Islamic countries, henna ceremonies adorn women's bodies with elaborate swirls. The patterns are meant to bring good luck and fertility to the marriage.


In Japan, warriors adhere to the ritual of seppuku, which is what?

Japanese warriors adhere to the Bushido code, in which surrender is dishonorable. Seppuku is ritual suicide, which these warriors prefer to capture.


Where did the practice of "flipping the bird" originate?

The Romans had plenty of ways to express their disgust with fellow humans, and extending their middle fingers was one of them. These days, it's a common sight on busy highways all over America.


On Witches Night in the Czech Republic, people have huge bonfires. Why?

On Witches Night, big bonfires roar into the skies, where they set flying witches on fire. The bigger the fire, the more effective at downing evil witches.


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