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(Photo: icanchangethisright/Flickr)

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

• July 28, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: icanchangethisright/Flickr)

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?

“What was that all about?” It was a fair question. I’d just finished passing a 20-dollar bill to the couple beside us at the stoplight, and not even they seemed to understand what had happened.

I had rolled down my window, and then waved my arms until the man in the passenger seat noticed. He rolled down their window, and then listened as I shouted, “Have a happy honeymoon!”

He took my 20 and waved goodbye. “What was that all about,” my own shotgun companion had asked. “Do you know them?”

Knowing that someone bought my parents a tank of gas hasn’t made me any less likely to hand newlyweds a little cash—in fact, it’s a cheaper alternative to the kindness some stranger showed them.

No, I didn’t know them. I’d never met the couple, but I’d seen “Just Married” written on the tailgate of their truck and the wedding bells painted on their rear window. I did what I have always done since getting my license: If I had any cash, then I’d give something—a 10, a five, usually nothing larger than a 20—to the newly married couple.

It was, as I told my friend, a tradition. Some stranger had done this same thing for my parents when they were on their honeymoon three decades ago, or so I thought. When I asked my parents about it, having handed over all those hard-earned but easily gifted bills to newlyweds for years, they laughed. No stranger had ever done this for them.

No one had given them cash, but someone had bought them a tank of gas. Married on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but driving to Virginia for their honeymoon, my parents had stopped for gas somewhere near Winchester. When they went into the store to pay for what they’d pumped, the attendant told them the man on the other pump had already paid, and wished them well.

That man, though he never spoke to them, noticed the white paint that spelled out “Just Married” on the rear window of their ’79 Ford Pinto, and paid for their gas. They left Winchester for Appomattox, the first of several battlefields they planned to visit. Somehow, 30 years later, I’d mangled the story, swapping cash for gas, and inventing an interaction with the well-wisher that had never happened.

Even before Queen Victoria’s white dress, weddings were magnets for these kinds of traditions. But like my misremembering, such traditions are often altered: taken in where they need it, let out where they don’t.

But it can be easy to carry on traditions without appreciating why we do so. Two folk stories illustrate this well. Take the tale of the guru who tied his cat to a tree during worship because it distracted worshippers. The guru died, and for years, the cat continued to be tied to the tree; when the cat died, another was found to take its place. The cat became a liturgical tradition, even though its presence had nothing to do with the worship being conducted inside the temple.

Similarly, consider the story of the couple who fought over how to cook a ham: the husband insisting the end be cut off and the wife demanding to know why; the husband answered it was because that was how his grandmother cooked it, but it turned out she only cut off the ends because her roaster wasn’t big enough for a whole ham. The culinary tradition had nothing to do with the quality of the dish, and everything to do with the size of the oven.

Such dubious origins needn’t invalidate a tradition, though it is useful to know why we do the things we do. Knowing that someone bought my parents a tank of gas hasn’t made me any less likely to hand newlyweds a little cash—in fact, it’s a cheaper alternative to the kindness some stranger showed them.

Anything, then, can become a tradition. It only takes doing it more than once. My little sister always lifts her feet when she drives across railroad tracks, though she doesn’t really have a reason for doing so. Just a tradition, I guess, or maybe even a little bit of superstition. A friend of mine always pays the toll of the car behind her, or at least she did when the toll to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was only $2.50.

I don’t know if she’s kept up that tradition now that it’s $6. That tradition made a lot more sense when it only required a five-dollar bill: you could execute your kindness, and save yourself the trouble of waiting for the tollbooth attendant to make change. Traditions, then, aren’t only inherited, but can be habits we observe. Family traditions, yes, but also friend traditions, and even traditions enacted between strangers, like the cash I still like to toss at newlyweds in cars.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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