Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

ham-cook

(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.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.