Do you ever catch yourself doing something that would appear seriously strange to someone from another culture? Culture and traditions vary hugely around the world. They are part of what makes our planet such a diverse and fascinating place to live.
In the spirit of exploring different cultures from more than just a linguistic standpoint – you can use our localization services for that – the Tomedes team has investigated different cultural traditions from around the world. Along the way we found customs and traditions that range from the delightful to the distressing to the downright odd.
Why don’t you settle down with a coffee and let us take you on a quick tour of some of these fascinating cultural traditions around the world?
Let’s start with some definitions. After all, here at Tomedes we do love language in all its forms. (And on that subject, if you click the link below, you can enjoy our article on cultural connections and figures of speech.)
What is culture? Culture is the combination of a particular society or people’s ideas, beliefs, customs, arts and social behaviours. It is the essence of that society – something that is deeply ingrained and that is unique to that particular population.
What’s a tradition? A tradition is also deeply ingrained. It relates to a specific activity, event or behaviour that has been repeated over and again from generation to generation.
Interestingly, a tradition differs from a custom. The difference between customs and traditions is that the former refers to a collective behaviour that has not been taking place long enough to become a tradition (though it could well become one if a sufficient number of people repeat it for a long enough duration of time).
Our different traditions are an intrinsic part of our different cultures. These unique cultural practices often serve to help define our sense of who we are and where we belong. This is the case regardless of whether or not we practice the tradition in question – it is still a part of our cultural heritage and engaging in it (or not) says something about both who we are and who we aspire to be.
Tradition and culture are inextricably linked. Both have developed over countless generations. Traditions tend to be unique to certain societies and are usually born of local beliefs and circumstances. These can relate to a wide variety of different areas of daily life.
Few areas of daily life have generated as many traditions over the years as the food that we eat. From the implements that we use to eat and the way that we sit, to the foods that we associate with certain times of the year, food-based traditions are an important part of almost every culture.
In the UK, for example, it’s traditional for a couple who marry to freeze the top tier of their wedding cake and eat it a year later, on their first wedding anniversary. Doing so is supposed to bring the couple luck. The cake doesn’t spoil, as a traditional wedding cake is made from alcohol-soaked fruitcake, topped with marzipan and royal icing.
Some traditions span more than one country. Religious traditions are an excellent example of this (though there are, of course, many religious traditions that are unique to a single society or people).
From pilgrimages to celebrations on specific days, religious traditions traditions around the world are immensely important to people. They create a feeling of connection (both spiritual and to one’s fellow humans) and help people to define themselves and their beliefs.
Many religious traditions are also linked to food. During holy communion, for example, Catholics consume a wafer made from unleavened bread. They believe that, thanks to a mystical process known as transubstantiation, they are consuming the body of Jesus Christ.
Many cultures around the world have traditions that relate to clothing. The colour that a bride wears on her wedding day is often traditional and thought to bring good luck. In China, brides wear red; in the US, they tend to dress in white.
Hindu brides will also be found in red, in the form of a wedding sari or a lehenga (this differs according to the region of India that the bride lives in). For more about Indian customs and traditions, and the importance of localizing in order to respect those traditions, click the link below.
It’s not just in the area of bridal clothing where we see traditions linked to luck. Indeed, many traditions are born of superstitions – widely held but irrational beliefs, often linked to luck and to the supernatural.
Magpies are an excellent example of this. Some Native American tribes held a tradition of wearing a magpie feather as a sign of fearlessness. However, many Christian communities believe that seeing a lone magpie represents bad luck. Over time, various traditions have arisen to ward off that bad luck. Some people salute, others say good morning to the solo bird, while others will settle for doffing their hat.
Such examples of traditions and customs linked to warding off bad luck, and encouraging good luck, exist across the globe.
Plenty of cultures have traditions that relate to holiday periods. Have you ever pinned a stocking to the mantelpiece on Christmas Eve? Or left a mince pie and a tipple out for Father Christmas? Along with a carrot for Rudolph, of course!
Holiday traditions are often linked with eating and drinking but are certainly not always. In China, for example, one tradition at New Year is the giving of red envelopes containing money. Parents and grandparents often gift these to their children as part of the celebrations.
Many interesting cultural traditions have arisen over the years as a result of people celebrating the actions and/or lives of certain individuals. For example, have you heard of the Prince Philip Movement? It is a religious sect based on the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu. There, the Kastom people around Yaohnanen village believe that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (the husband of Queen Elizabeth II) is a divine being. Every year on his birthday, they hold a traditional feast with ceremonial dances.
As well as traditions that honour the lives (both past and present) of certain individuals, many countries observe traditions that honour the dead more widely. In the UK and countries across the Commonwealth, for example, a two-minute silence is held at 11 am on 11 November. It marks the time at which the hostilities of the First World War ended in 1918. Those observing it reflect upon the sacrifices that were made by so many in order to deliver freedom from oppression.
Music and dance form an important part of the culture of people across the world. Who can picture Mexico without the image of a mariachi band leaping to mind or think of Spain without imagining brightly dressed flamenco dancers?
Traditional music and dance vary hugely from culture to culture, both in terms of the instruments used and the style of the dancing. However, what they do tend to have in common is a power that reaches out across cultural divides. Have you ever cried at an opera, despite not speaking any Italian? The traditional, moving music carries a power all of its own.
Each culture also has its own traditional objects. Keeping Mexican traditions in mind, how long is it before you’re picture a sombrero? Or a pinata? Precisely.
Many families develop their own birthday traditions, which are passed down through the generations. Societies also have their own established birthday traditions. Did you play pass the parcel at your birthday parties as a child? Or make a wish after blowing out the candles on your cake? If you grew up in the US or the UK (and numerous other countries), the chances are you did!
While some traditions are set in stone, others grown and develop over the years. A rather bizarre tradition from the UK illustrates this nicely. Every Spring Bank Holiday, crowds gather on Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire to chase cheese down a hill. Competitors race to catch a seven to nine pound round of Double Gloucester cheese, as it reaches speeds of up to 70 miles per hour rolling down Cooper’s Hill. The winner, appropriately, is presented with a cheese as their prize.
While the origins of the event have been lost to history, we know that it has been celebrated locally for well over 200 years. However, in recent years, the annual event has begun to grow and attract an international audience, with winners hailing from as far afield as Nepal, New Zealand and the USA.
The internet has played a key role in the spreading fame of such events. It is also giving rise to a whole new set of customs that may one day become traditions. For more on internet culture around the world, click the link below.
Just as some traditions grow, others gradually dwindle over the years. Australia, for example, used to host huge public fireworks displays on the Queen’s Birthday and on Empire Day. However, with the sale of fireworks banned in numerous states over the course of the 1980s, the tradition is one which has faded over the years.
We’ve already touched on the worship of Prince Philip and competitive cheese rolling, but those are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strange traditions cultural habits and world traditions. Let’s take a look at a few examples of cultural differences around the world and the traditions that these have given rise to.
Once a year, in the Valencian town of Buñol, Spaniards gather to throw tomatoes at each other. The world’s largest tomato fight, La Tomatina now attracts participants from around the world.
If you don’t fancy throwing tomatoes, how about oranges? During the Carnevale di Ivrea each year, residents of the Italian city of Ivrea come together to hurl oranges at each other. The tradition is in memory of a battle between the townsfolk and a ruling tyrant, with oranges thrown as part of the fight for freedom.
If you like to nibble your birthday cake elegantly, it might be best not to spend your birthday in Mexico. After singing happy birthday, guests watch while the birthday boy or girl blows out their candles. They then lean over and take a bite of the cake, at which point someone will push their face into it.
Speaking of food, did you know that in Bolivia it is traditional to bake money into sweet pastries and cakes on New Year’s Eve? It’s a tradition in which bakeries across the country take part. Those who find a coin in their cake can look forward to plenty of good luck in the new year.
In another food-themed tradition, this time in Spain, children leave their shoes out to be filled with sweets on the evening of 5 January. It’s the night before Día de Reyes, which honours the Three Kings presenting their gifts to baby Jesus.
Across Africa, and in various Asian and Middle Eastern countries, female genital mutilation (FGM) is the tradition of removing the female genitals either entirely or in part. Most often practiced on young children, it is a horrific procedure that is illegal in numerous countries around the world. That it continues to be so widespread shows the difficulty of breaking such an ingrained cultural tradition.
On a lighter note, the town of High Wycombe in the UK has the strange tradition of weighing its mayor at the start and end of their term of office. Local history indicates that the tradition began in order to ensure that the mayor was not living off the fat of the land.
Do you leave your teeth under the pillow for the Tooth Fairy to swap for money? In Greece, they take a different approach. There, children toss their milk teeth onto the roof when they fall out. The tradition is supposed to bring good luck to the child’s family and hail the arrival of a healthy adult tooth.
From throwing teeth to carrying wives… in Finland, it has been traditional since the 19th century to participate in eukonkanto – the sport of wife-carrying. There’s even a Wife Carrying World Championship. The winner’s prize is their wife’s weight in beer.
In Barsana, India, the annual Lath Maar Holi festivities see the village’s women engage in the tradition of attacking their menfolk with dandas (enormous sticks). The men must defend themselves with shields after catcalling, while the women attempt to beat them.
Are you familiar with the sweet little nativity scenes that are so popular in Spain and Portugal (and many other countries) at Christmas? Well, in Catalonia there is a tradition of adding to the scene by including the caganer – a small figurine of a man with his trousers around his ankles, caught in the act of defecating. This unusual addition to the nativity symbolises good luck, with the caganer fertilising the earth.
In Whittlesea, UK, residents gather together every January for the annual Straw Bear festival – a tradition that dates back over two centuries. The performer must parade through the town wearing a five-stone bear costume made of metal and straw. A troupe of Appalachian and Morris dancers accompany the bear on its wander.
These traditions are examples of different cultures around the world. They are cultural practices that may well seem strange to those unfamiliar with their meaning or origins. However, each tradition is part of a unique culture that has developed over many generations.
This is why localization services are so important during translation – as each culture is unique, only those who understand it natively and instinctively are in a position to ensure that documents are perfectly suited to those who will be reading them.
What is a tradition from your own culture that outsiders might find strange? Leave a comment in the box to share your traditions.
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