Real facts about customs around the world

Have you ever wondered why certain customs and traditions are followed especially during certain occasions? Like rolling out the red carpet when you have to welcome a distinguished guest or lighting candles on your birthday cake.

Well, here are some stories and facts behind the everyday customs and traditions that we have been following, which we never bothered to question.

1. Who thought up the gesture ‘thumbs up’?

Thumbs up is a gesture, and hand motions, like head shaking or scratching one’s stomach, are a kind of nonverbal communication. Even very young children can be taught some gestures (under one year). Some gestures, such as sticking out your thumb to hitch a ride, are tremendously useful when travelling… unless you happen to be in a nation where it is regarded a very disrespectful symbol.

You could get yourself into a lot of trouble if you do this. Thumbs up is a very popular gesture, regardless of how it originated. Despite the fact that it is technically erroneous (it should be “thumbs up”), “thumbs up” has been widely recognized as a sign of approval for at least 400 years, if not longer. There doesn’t appear to be much more to it than the fact that “up” implies good and “down” indicates bad.

And it could have something to do with the old English phrase “Here’s my thumb on it,” which was used to seal a contract or close a trade. With moist thumbs, the two people exchanged a gentle “high five.”

The thumbs-up symbol could possibly be linked to the ‘gladiator combat’ of the ancient Romans. If the crowd wanted to save the life of a defeated gladiator, they would cover their thumbs.

During World War II, American pilots put a unique spin on the thumbs-up.

Rashotte told LiveScience, “The most well-documented genesis of it in the United States is from World War II.” “Pilots would give a thumbs-up when they were ready to take off. That was their way of signalling to the team that they were ready and everything was fine.” 

The thumbs-up sign is also prevalent in other parts of the world, albeit it can have a variety of meanings. It’s the equivalent of “flipping someone off” in Iran and Greece, according to Rashotte. She went on to say that the significance of a gesture in India varies depending on whether it is accompanied by particular words or other hand movements.

While we’re at it, here’s another weirdly popular gesture around the world. When your thumb contacts the tip of your nose and your fingers are spread out and pointing up, you’re “thumbing your nose” (and sometimes waggling). Most schoolchildren will recognize this gesture as a taunt, an insult, or a snide remark directed at someone or something. With the hand, it’s like saying “Nyah, Nyah.” This is frequently referred to as the ‘five finger salute’.

2. What is the story behind lighting the candles on a birthday cake?

Here we have the Greek Goddess of Moon, Artemis to thank for the birthday cake traditions. For her birthday, Artemis received moon-shaped honey cakes. (Get it- moon goddess gets moon shaped cakes?) and the rest of us here celebrated our birthdays with round cakes. The Greeks also gave us the custom of lighting one candle on your birthday cake for each year you have lived.

According to legend, if you can blow out all of the candles with one breath after making a wish, it will come true… as long as you don’t tell anyone what you wished for. There is also a notion that eating the words on a cake will make them come true, so a bite of “Happy Birthday” will bring you joy. Another legend holds that the way you spend your birthday will set the tone for the year ahead—so try not to cry on that day, or you’ll be crying for the following 364 days.

3. What is the origin of rolling out the red carpet?

Red is a powerful shade, associated with blood, danger, fire, and roses. Red is the colour of life, but it is also associated with anger, vitality, and strength. It’s a colour steeped in folklore and superstition. But why is that?

Think:dye. Red fabrics have always been in high demand, although this was before the advent of chemical dyeing at the end of the nineteenth century. It was quite challenging to find a wonderful red hue that was both light fast and washable. Three thousand years ago, the Phoneicians discovered how to extract dye from mollusks to create reds and Tyrian purple, a deep violet.

The catch was that you had to collect a large number of mollusks, which made the resulting colour so expensive that it was only available to royalty. To symbolise their exalted position, the Roman Emperrors wore a toga with purple stripes. Crushed cochineal insects were used to make red dye, and it was carried back to Europe by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s.

Red was the royal colour of the United Kingdom, as well as the principal flag colour of the United States and Canada.

The colour red has become synonymous with royalty, pomp, occasion, and ceremony. Although the words “roll out the red carpet” or “red carpet treatment” was first heard in 1934, there is usually a red carpet when there is a ceremonial event.

As is customary in these situations, the word has been taken by the advertising industry, and stores seeking customers guarantee “red carpet treatment.” It’s a good thing they don’t have to go mollscus hunting to accomplish it.

4. Why do grooms carry their brides over the threshold?

This is an odd one because it falls under the category of tradition, yet it no longer has the same meaning as it did years ago. Grooms used to carry their wives across the threshold (through the doorway) to fend off bad luck because new brides were regarded to be powerful, and doorways were thought to be powerful as well. It would be extremely unlucky if the bride stepped over the threshold with her left foot first, or tripped while passing through the door. However, if she is lifted into the room, the taboo has no effect—sort of like getting past the spirits who defend the location. In the twenty-first century, a custom like this is difficult to accept.

Carrying the bride over the threshold was sometimes the only way to get through the door, rather than being willing partners in marriage, is also a myth.

“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition”

-Henry James