Common Practices with Strange Origins

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There are many practices that are done everyday without a second thought. Practices that have a stranger, darker root to them but are done so often that their purpose and meaning has changed over the centuries. Listed below are some of the craziest everyday occurrences that are practiced today that rooted from stranger traditions.

A Groom’s Best Man

Commonly the groom’s brother or best friend, the best man stands beaming next to the husband-to-be. Sometimes he even cries. But yesteryear, he would’ve held a sword. You know why he stands so close to the groom? So he can intercede with his blade if needed. So where does that “best” part come in? He was literally the groom’s best swordsman. This tradition hails back to the day when a wedding was a financial transaction — and as we all know, sometimes financial transactions can go bad. Should the bride’s father have second thoughts or a lovelorn rival spring from the rafters, it was the best man’s job to ensure the deal went down as planned. If kidnapping became necessary, the best man was the muscle. Later, he stood guard outside the nuptial bedroom.


The Ancient Celts used mistletoe as an animal aphrodisiac, or more specifically, to increase the fertility of sheep. Such became the mythic power of mistletoe that in addition to bringing a lamb-ful spring, mistletoe was hung over doorways to ward off fire, lightning and evil spirits. But despite its protective properties, mistletoe couldn’t shuck its fertile past, and even though it was hung in people’s doorways, it seemed as if something romantic should occur in its presence. Thus the kissing. Did you know that mistletoe’s power runs out? Every time a man steals a kiss under the mistletoe, he must pay by plucking one of its berries. When the berries are gone, no more smooching.

Pinky Swear

Who hasn’t, at some point or another, made a pinky swear with a best friend or a child? The pinky swear is the highest of all promises, an unbreakable oath — and, in fact, what you’re saying with this oath is that if you break it, the wronged party may cut off your pinky. The gist of the custom (if not the bloody follow-through) is a recent immigrant to the United States, having originated with the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza. The Japanese roots of the pinky swear are evident in its common use in anime films, where it is known as yubikiri or “finger cut off.”

Birthday Candles

What celestial body does a round, iced cake most resemble? If you said the moon, then you agree with the Ancient Greeks, who first put candles on cakes offered to Artemis, goddess of the moon. Some historians think the candles were used simply to lend the cake a moon-like glow. Others think that when the candles were blown out, their smoke was supposed to carry the birthday man’s or woman’s wishes skyward to the goddess. Whatever the case, candles cause more than 15,000 residential fires every year. There is no data describing the presumably uncountable annual toll of birthday candles on kids’ hair and eyebrows.

New Year’s Resolutions

When the calendar flips over to January 1, we start to make promises to ourselves. This year, we’ll lose weight. We’ll be more organized. We’ll spend more time with our families. But why is this the time for resolutions? The Roman god Janus had two heads — one that looked forward into the future and one that looked into the past. And while many Roman rulers made a land grab for the months of the year — see August, October and July — Janus stood strong at the beginning of the year. This is January. And on the first day of January, we look back at the year past and then ahead at the year to come.

The Detroit Red Wings Octopus

In 1952, it took exactly eight wins — two best-of-seven series — to win the Stanley Cup. And so it seemed only natural that fishmongering brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano threw an octopus onto the ice at the beginning of that year’s playoffs, each tentacle symbolizing a needed win. In 1952, they got them — all eight in a row, sweeping the playoffs and solidifying the enigmatic cephalopod’s presence on playoff ice from that point forward. Notably, during the 1995 playoffs, fishmongering co-workers Bob Dubisky and Larry Shotwell threw a 50-pound (22.7-kilogram) octopus onto the ice during the national anthem before the conference finals.

Flipping the Bird

As any driver of freeways in California or New Jersey knows, an extended middle finger is a gesture of recognition from one driver to another, a way of saying, “Thank you for sharing this short time on the path of human individuation with me.” In fact, this heartwarming gesture has roots in ancient Rome, where the digitus impudicus, or “impudent finger,” was a sign of disdain, much as it is today. Specifically, the Roman historian Martial writes, “Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out.” So, if you were somehow transported back to the time of Julius Caesar, rest assured that you would have at least one means of communication.

The High-Five

The low-five grew out of African-American cultural tradition and was firmly established by at least World War II. When exactly the low-five went high is up for some debate, as detailed in a very entertaining article published by ESPN the Magazine. The gist is this: Despite his claims, it’s very unlikely that Magic Johnson invented the high-five while at Michigan State. More likely, it’s an artifact of the women’s volleyball circuit, circa 1960. But most likely is that it was, in fact, invented by Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker upon reaching the home plate of Dodger Stadium after hitting his 30th homerun of the season on Oct. 2, 1977. On the other end of the high-five was outfielder Glenn Burke, who after retirement from baseball was the first gay baseball player to come out of the closet. His frequent use of the high-five in San Francisco’s Castro District helped make the gesture a signal of gay pride.


The Traditional Handshake origin was used so soldiers can check each other for concealed weapons up their sleeves upon meeting.