Tradition Origins You’ve Always Wondered About

How many times do we repeat rituals in the exact same way as generations have done before us? How many times do we slightly alter the tradition in order to fit our needs? Yet, we have no idea about any of the tradition origins, and why we do the things we do. Maybe if we would, we’d be more willing to make some changes in some cases, but stick to the original in others.

Let’s take a look at some traditions and find out what got them started. It’s probably not what you expected.

Traditions based on religion

Most of us know the origins of the major religious holidays. Therefor we don’t need to post this here. Let’s just take a look at at some tradition origins we didn’t think their beginnings was based on religious believes.

Making your New Year’s resolution

The practice of making promises for the new year started around 4000 years ago with the Babylonians. At the beginning of the their new year (middle of March when they planted the crops) they held a 12-day religious festival to celebrate the new year. During the festivity they vowed to the gods to pay their debts and return anything they had borrowed. They believed that by keeping the vows they would be in the gods favors for the new year. On the other hand, breaking the vows would would bring them punishment throughout the year.

The ancient Romans continued the tradition by honoring the two-faced god Janus. This god, for whom January is named, looked with one face to the past, and the other to the future. January 1st was very significant to the Romans. On which they offered sacrifices and promises to Janus for the new year.

Roman coin with the two-faced head of Janus

Celebrating birthdays

To celebrate birthdays goes back to about 5000 B.C. Egypt. The Egyptians celebrated the birthday of their Pharaoh. Although, they did not celebrate his birth into this world, but rather that of his birth as a god. During their crowning, the Pharaoh’s transformed into gods, which was much more significant than their worldly childbirth on Earth.

We can thank the ancient Romans celebrating the birth of a non-godly common person.

Any Roman who turned 50 years of age was celebrated by a circle of friends and family. But—- it was only reserved for men. Women had to wait until about the 12th century before they were celebrated.

Birthday candles

Who would have thought that adding birthday candles on top of a round birthday cake, and blowing them out while making a wish is based on religion.

We have to thank the ancient Greeks for these tradition origins. To honor Artemis, the goddess of the moon, hunt and chastity, the Greeks baked round cakes that resembled the moon. To resemble the moon light they added candles on top of it.

Like many ancient cultures, the Greeks too believed that smoke carried wishes and prayers to the gods. Thus, blowing out the candles while making a wish, the smoke carried the wish skyward to Artemis.

tradition origins Artemis gif
The tradition of birthday cakes and candles originated with celebrations in honor of Artemis

In the 1700s, the Germans took on this tradition to celebrate “Kinderfest”. Which was a birthday celebration for all children in the 1700s. They baked a round cake and placed one candle on it as a symbol for “light of life”.

Also in Germany in the 1700s. Count Ludwig Von Zinzindorf started the tradition of placing as many candles on the cake as his age was on his birthday.

Crossing fingers

To make a wish come true by crossing our fingers can be traced back to pre-Christianity pagan cultures in Western Europe. For them, the cross was a powerful symbolism. They believed that the intersection was filled with a concentration of good spirits who helped to have prayers answered.

It developed from two people crossing index fingers with each other (one person making the wish, the other for support), to one person crossing their own two index fingers, and finally to crossing two fingers on one hand.

On the other side, when crossing fingers while lying, the tradition origins are not as clear. One can only find speculations about it.

Some speculate it is to wish for good luck to get away with a lie. Others believe it might have its origin in Christianity. During the persecutions of Christians, believers might have crossed their fingers to ask god for forgiveness when denying their faith.

People also like reading How a photo was hijacked to bring an end to a tradition, but ended up doing a great injustice to what really took place in the photo dubbed ‘Kiss of Judas’

Take a look at different Christmas Traditions around the world

Tradition Origins based on life

Not all traditions are based on religious rituals. Many traditions origins are from life experiences of different cultures and societies at one time or another in the past.

Groom’s best man

Choosing a ‘best man’ is a well known tradition for every wedding. Aside from throwing a bachelor party, their role is basically to assist the groom before and during the wedding.

While the tradition of bachelors parties go back to the 5th century B.C. when the ancient Spartans celebrated the “last night as a free man” with food and wine, the ‘best man’ did not come into place until the days of the knights.

Back then, weddings were usually arranged between the parents of the soon to be wed. This did not always fare well, since the arrangements were based on economic reasons. There was always the danger that a lover might want to interfere with the wedding. Or outsiders might try to break off weddings for political or other reasons.

It was the responsibility of the best swordsman to prevent any of it from happening. He stood right next to the groom during the ceremony. And during the wedding night he guarded the door to the nuptial bedroom. Always ready to draw his sword against anyone who tried to stop the wedding.

Tradition origins surrounding the Bride’s flower bouquet

Yes, women love flowers. But that is not the reason why brides carry a bouquet of lovely flowers during their wedding ceremony. This tradition has actually to do with the good smell that comes from the flowers.

During the 1500s people believed that bathing could cause diseases. According to one medical treaty of the 16th century, “Water baths warm the body, but weaken the organism and widen pores. That’s why they can be dangerous and cause different diseases, even death.” Medieval church authorities proclaimed that public bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases. Therefor people only washed their hands and maybe some parts of the face. Baths were reduced to only a few times a year.

Preparations for hot baths included the cleaning of the tubs and heating large amounts of water. Buckets after buckets needed to be carried to fill the tubs. Bathing rooms needed to be heated to a comfortable temperature, which not everyone could afford. This led to not taking any baths at all during the cold winter months. So during May, when the spring sun began to warm things up, people took their first bath.

tradition origins first bath of the year,

Weddings follow 1st bath of the year

Weddings took place in June after the May baths had washed off the winter dirt. Of course, the good bodily aromas from the baths vanished during the time passing from bathing day to the wedding. What was left was a rather unpleasant body odor. To remedy this, the brides carried a bouquet of flowers to have its sweet aroma mask the stink.

After the celebration ended, guests often behaved rudely. They tried to tear away a piece of the wedding gown or grab some pedals from the flower bouquet. They thought of getting such a souvenir was a bringer of good luck. To prevent being under such an attack, the brides threw their bouquets into the crowd. While the guests were fighting over the bouquet the newly wed couple managed to escape.

Flower bouquets used to be thrown at the rude guests, so the brides could escape.

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids today fulfill the same tasks for the bride as the groomsmen do for the groom. But back in ancient times, their purpose to protect the bride.

People in ancient times believed that evil spirits might try and kidnap the bride. Since it was believed that those spirits are short-sighted, the bridesmaids were made to wear the exact same outfit as the bride. When the spirits showed up they could not tell the bride apart from the maids. Thus the bride would be saved.

Being superstitious never seems yo go out of style. Take a look at superstition of good and bad omens from around the world.

Burials

Tradition origins of holding a wake and the presence of flowers before and during a funeral ceremony is rather grim

In the distant past people drank their wine and ale from led cups. The combination of the led with drinking too much alcohol often left the heavy drinker passed out for days. Upon discovery of the “body” they were thought to be dead and thus prepared for burial. Since so many people were buried alive, the bodies were laid out on the kitchen table for a few days. The family gathered around the table, and while eating and drinking, they waited to see if the deceased would wake up. Thus ‘holding a wake’.

Family and friends holding a wake around the body of the deceased

Of course, keeping the deceased on the table like this will create a not so pleasant odor. The solution was to place lots of fresh cut flowers around the deceased. It helped to keep the corpse smell from getting too strong.

Did you know? More and more people are now breaking tradition when it comes to burials. Take a look at the many alternatives to traditional burials.

Flipping the bird

Who would have thought that flipping someone the finger also has its origin in ancient times.

The ancient Greek called the gesture katapygon. Meaning downwards and buttocks, and used as a symbol of intercourse to intimidate, degrade or threaten the other person. Later the ancient Romans also used the gesture for the same purpose. They called the middle finger “digitus impudicus” . Which means shameless, indecent, or offensive finger. Roman historian Martial wrote, “Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out.”

Giving and receiving birthday gift

Ancient cultures, like the Greeks, held a firm belief that evil spirits would come uninvited to birthday celebrations. Family and friends brought presents for the birthday child to ensure prosperity and safety from the spirits.

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Shaking hands

It seems like forever that people have been shaking hands to either greet each other, or to seal a deal. And it is always done with the prominent hand.

Turns out that nobody really knows where and when the first hand shake took place. But all scholars agree it happened thousands of years ago. And the purpose was to show that there were no weapons hidden up one’s sleeve at the beginning of a friendly meeting. Also that is was a symbol of a bond made of keep a promise.

This tradition certainly was around during the times of the Babylonians. A ninth century relief shows Assyrian King Shalmaneser III shaking hands with a Babylonian ruler to seal an alliance.

One can also find descriptions of handshakes associated with trust and pledges in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” on several occasions.

Shaking hands was done with the stronger weapon hand to show trust

Covering your mouth while coughing, sneezing and yawning

We probably think it has to do with courtesy or simply to keep from spreading germs. Turns out these tradition origins have to do with evil spirits.

Ancient cultures believed that during coughing, sneezing an empty void was left inside you. To prevent evil spirits from filling this void, one needed to cover their mouth. To cover the mouth while yawning was also necessary. This was because demons might take the opportunity of a gaping wide open mouth to enter one’s body.

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