Why Would You Do That? 5 Cultural Traditions with Macabre Origins

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Life is full of various rituals and traditions that we take for granted. But when we examine them more closely, they turn out to be pretty weird. Everything from casually saying, “God bless you” after a sneeze to the pranking on April Fool’s Day seems lighthearted and casual, but may be derivative of dark, strange origins.

Have you ever stopped to consider exactly why married couples wear wedding rings on their left Digitus medicinalis (the answer may be the vena amoris)? Or why it’s considered bad luck (by stupid people) to have your path crossed by a black cat? Or to walk under a ladder? Actually, that one we’ll field right now: gravity.
Today we’ll take a look at five things you likely take for granted, but that are actually rather twisted. And we start with…

5 “God bless you”

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We hope we got you wondering about the whole “God bless you” thing above, because we’re going to shed some light on why we say it right now! There are two prevailing traditions, which are related, yet diametrically opposed. When you sneeze, it is either A) A great time for the soul to escape the body, or B) A great time for evil spirits to enter the body. A quick blessing helps either way! Many countries (or cultures and languages would be a better way to look at it) have variations on “Bless you” that mean, essentially, “health” or “to your health.” The most common of these are gesundheit (German) and salud (Spanish). It was thought that a sneeze briefly stopped the heart, and saying things like “to your health” helped encourage the sneezer to not die.

4 Breaking a glass to end the wedding ceremony

And speaking of weddings, the awesome Jewish tradition of the new husband breaking a glass to end the wedding ceremony? Yeah, dark origins is right. It is believed that the breaking of the glass was to serve as a reminder of the total destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the most holy place in Jewish tradition. So it’s kind of like having the best, most wonderful dessert ever, and then immediately eating a sardine: “Happy wedding! Hey, remember when our temple was ruined? OK, back to the wedding!”

3 The Handshake

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When you meet someone new, you traditionally shake their hand, right? Well, yes, but “traditionally,” if we’re going back many hundreds of years, this gesture was actually meant to show your new associate that you were not stashing a knife in your sleeve, a knife you were planning to stick into their body. The handshake was a show of good faith, essentially saying: “Hi, it’s nice to meet you, and I am not going to stab you. At least not right now.”

2 The Bridal Veil

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And speaking of wedding rings, let’s talk about the bridal veil. You may think that a new bride’s wearing of that thin, gauzy veil is just for show—after all, she can easily see through it and can clearly be seen. But in fact the wearing of the veil likely traces back to cultures in which marriages were arranged and was in fact meant to keep the woman’s face totally obscured from her new husband until after the ceremony was complete. Thus the first time a husband saw his bride, they were “legally” (or at least societally, contractually, etc.) bound, and it was too late for him to scram. The question is, did the bride’s get a bit of say if they caught a glimpse of their husband-to-be’s ugly mug? Doubt it.

1 The Pinky Promise

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You know that adorable little schoolyard oath chums or sweethearts make to one another, when they lock pinkies and say “pinky promise” (or the less alliterative “pinky swear”)? That innocent practice is likely derived from a tradition among Japanese underworld figures. For men in the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia), swearing on a pinky is promising that you’ll either keep your commitment… or lose your finger! There’s nothing cutesy about it, kids, you’re risking your Digitus minimus (that’s it with the scientific finger names, I promise)!

So the next time you casually go through the motions of this or that tradition, or you recite by rote some saying or idiom, remember: you might be giving a shout out to something weird, dark, or weird and dark! Which I’ll call… wark. No… no, that’s incredibly stupid, just forget about that last bit.

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