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The beauty of differences in world cultures is that what is normal and commonplace for some will seem strange and different to others. Here are ten customs and traditions from around the world that may appear especially bizarre to outsiders.

From bull running to Hara-Kiri, dueling to blackening the bride, there are so many traditions and customs around the world, that run to gauntlet from cute to absurd. And different customs exist for diverse occasions, like marriage rituals and festivals.   Have you ever considered that what may be commonplace and normal to you and to me may be strange or peculiar to others? Why is that so? Not all changes can be attributed to tradition or custom. And what causes these differences in the first place? How did some of them become “˜traditional’?

Let us take common ablutions as an example. Australians, like the Americans, prefer a shower every day. The English on the other hand prefer a bath. Why? Has it something to do with the different climates? As in America, a daily shower in Australia must be piping hot or the user feels unclean.

In Indonesia the traditional bath is called a “˜mandi’. A mandi is a trough about three feet or one metre square and is approximately the same measurement deep. No, the Indonesian does not get in the trough – he/she stands beside the trough and uses what is called in Australia a “˜dipper’. A dipper is a tin not unlike a large preserved fruit tin with a handle on one side. The user takes a dipper full of COLD water and pours it over himself. He then soaps up and continues to wash using the dipper to douse himself with water. Cold water, even in the hottest tropical day, is always extremely cold when left to stand for some time and, as a result, most mandis are very quick and lively affairs.

Take the ordinary toilet bowl. Ordinary? No, not by any means. The Australian toilet bowl has the water some nine to ten inches down from the top of the bowl. The American toilet bowl has the water no more than three to four inches from the top of the bowl. Very disconcerting for somebody accustomed to the Australian version. How did the Australian toilet bowls come to be designed differently to the American bowl? Could it be that Australia is a nation with a desperate and constant shortage of water – the dry continent? If that is so, it is an illusion and only a perception of saving water for the American cistern holds the same amount of water as its Australian counterpart. The difference is in the design of the outlet bend. In America it is higher than the Australian.

In Papua New Guinea and other Asian countries the “˜bowl’ is an elongated, porcelain hole set flush with the floor with two foot holds – one on either side. The user squats to use the facility. They do not have a cistern of water and the user is obliged to use a utensil similar to the Australian dipper to flush the unit. Those toilets, for Europeans, are extremely uncomfortable. Yet they do have their advantages. Most Asians have no trouble with their knees and even in old age have no difficulty squatting. Maybe the daily exercise keeps the knees agile? They have the added advantage in that the only part of the anatomy which touches the bowl are the feet thus avoiding unhealthy bodily contact with others.

Why is electricity so different throughout the world? In Australia and most countries which were former British colonies the system is the 240 volt power system. In the United States the power supply is 110 volts. In some Asian countries you have a choice of either, and even 32 volt systems, making the purchase of electrical goods somewhat hazardous. The 240 volt systems are extremely dangerous making house and industrial wiring a specialist’s job reserved for certified operators

In Australia the light switch is turned down to switch on the light or utility. In the United States the switch is turned up. The latter makes sense. If the switch becomes worn then, when it fails, the power is turned off. In Australia the power would be turned on when a switch fails.

In Indonesia it is considered extremely rude to point with the forefinger. It is especially rude if the pointing is towards a person. When pointing the Indonesian uses his thumb.

It is a common sight in Indonesian to see people with a very long fingernail on one or the other finger of the left hand. The purpose of this is related to the fact that public toilets are extremely rare and often non-existent making it necessary to use whatever facility is available. As a consequence toilet paper is equally rare – thus the long fingernail.

Polterabend – is a German pre-wedding tradition where friends and family come together for an informal party. While that may not seem odd, what they do at these parties certainly is. They break dishes, flowerpots, tiles, toilets, pretty much anything except glasses or mirrors. To symbolize working together through future difficulties, the bride and groom must clean everything up. Due to the need to replace all the broken goods, I suspect that German sellers of housewares are quite fond of this custom.

Monkey Buffet Festival –  No, this isn’t a festival that offers a variety of all-you-can-eat monkey dishes. Rather, the monkeys are the ones doing the feasting at this annual event in Thailand. Over 3,000 kilograms of fruit and vegetables are offered to the monkey population of the Lopburi province in Bangkok.

Gurning –  A “gurn” is a distorted facial expression, and English rural tradition has celebrated making these humorous grimaces since 1267. At the World Gurning Championship in Egremont, England, competitors don a horse collar and attempt to make the most grotesque face possible. While this tradition sounds silly, some, like four-time world champion Peter Jackman, take it very seriously. He had his teeth removed in 2000 to make his facial maneuvers easier.

Camel Wrestling  –  A kinder, gentler version of bullfighting?   In Turkey, camel wrestling is a popular event where spectators watch in glee as two specially bred male camels wrestle each other. Serious injuries are rare, but spectators should be wary of being sprayed by the milky saliva of the agitated camels.

Blackening the Bride  – To prepare for their marriage, Scottish brides-to-be must go through a very foul pre-wedding ritual. Friends of the bride take her by surprise and cover her with eggs, spoiled milk, feathers, pretty much anything disgusting. The blackened bride is then paraded around town. The purpose of this custom is to prepare the bride for marriage because after going through that, any marital problems will seem like nothing.

Day of the Geese – The Day of the Geese, or Antzar Eguna, is a Spanish tradition in which a greased goose is suspended over water and young men jump from boats and attempt to rip off the head of the goose. This competition serves as a way for young men to prove their strength and eligibility to females. In addition to winning the adoration of young women, the winners also gets to keep the goose. Although this tradition was once practiced all over Spain with live geese, this competition is now only held during the San Antolin festival in Lekeitio, with a dead goose to placate animal rights activists.

Caganers – The people of Catalonia, Spain have quite the amusing Christmas tradition. They hide small statuettes of people defecating in their nativity scenes for friends and family to try to find. These figurines are called “caganers”, which is Catalan for “defecator” or “shitter”. This tradition has existed since the 17th century, and nowadays it is common for famous people to be immortalized in the form of a caganer figurine.

Food Binding – For about a thousand years, young Chinese girls had to undergo the painful and debilitating process of foot binding. To ensure small, desirable feet, girls between the ages of three and fourteen had their feet broken and bound with bandages, in order to prevent their feet from growing “too big”. Despite many attempts to ban this ritual, an effective prohibition of foot binding was not was not enacted until 1949, when the Communists took power of China.

Finger Cutting – While most cultures mourn the loss of family members, women of the Dani tribe in Indonesia must suffer great physical pain in addition to emotional pain. When a family member dies, female relatives must cut off a segment of one of their fingers. This practice is performed to satisfy ancestral ghosts. Luckily for the Dani women, this custom is rarely practiced anymore.

Bathroom Ban – The Tidong are a group of people from northern Borneo with a particularly uncomfortable wedding custom. For the 3 days and 3 nights following the wedding, both the bride and groom are prohibited from using the bathroom. That means no urinating, no defecating, and no bathing. They believe that custom will lead to a long, happy, and fertile marriage. In order to achieve this, the newlyweds are allowed to eat and drink only very small amounts and are watched very closely by family members.

Strange Customs in Europe

Out of approximately 50 countries, Spain is the leader among European nations, when it comes to weird traditions. Below are some of the strangest Spanish customs.

♠ La Tomatina
A massive food fight, with crushed tomatoes as the weapons of choice. The town of Buñol runs red with tomato juice, from its citizens and shops to the streets.

♠ Caga Tia
This Christmas custom involves a log, which is hollow and has a cute face painted on one end. You must buy the log on December 8th and it must be “fed” daily. Come Christmas Eve, the log should be placed near the fireplace and “beaten” with a stick. The punishment forces the log to eject nuts, candies and fruits. Its final gift is a garlic bulb or onions or salt herring. There’s even an encouraging song to sing along while “beating” the log.

♠ El Colacho
This is the sport of long jumping with a twist. The town of Castrillo de Murcia exorcises their 1 year old inhabitants, by laying them out on a mattress and the devil and his assistant jump over them. This custom is meant to represent the devil running away from the town and taking any evil present in the infants with him.

Strange Customs in Asia and Australia

☛ While there are infinite marriage customs and traditions in India, one ritual that is amusing and touching is the Kashi Yatra. This takes place at the groom’s house, before he arrives at the marriage hall for the ceremony. The groom pretends he wants to be a holy man and live a life of religion, so he decides to go to Kashi (a holy place). His household plays along and helps him collect a walking stick and some bare essentials for the trip. Just as he is about to leave, the bride’s father comes and extols the virtues of his daughter and why the groom should marry her. After some good-natured ribbing and laughs on both sides, the groom decides to get married instead and proceeds to the marriage venue.

☛ When meeting someone new or old, a handshake is the norm. But in Middle-Eastern culture, there are different rules when it comes to greeting someone physically. For example, a man will greet a new or old acquaintance with a kiss on the right cheek, then the left, patting the back or shoulders at the same time. If they know each other but are meeting after a long time, then the greeting is as follows: shake hands, kiss on the right cheek, then the left and finally on the right again.

☛ In Bedouin circles, a rule while accepting tea or coffee is to give a slight shake or jiggle of the empty cup, while returning it, to indicate that you are done and do not want anymore coffee. If you fail to shake the cup, be prepared to keep getting it refilled!

☛ In the land Down Under, the term “B.Y.O” is used in party and get-together invitations. It denotes “Bring your own”, which means you are expected to bring your own beverages, alcoholic or not to the event! Some restaurants and eateries allow “BYO”‘s, where you can opt for your own alcoholic drinks instead of purchasing them from the restaurant.

Strange African Customs

♝ The Sebou custom marks the occasion of a newborn and is followed by all religious sects of Egypt. The ceremony takes place seven days, after the birth of the child. A grand feast is prepared, family members from far and wide, friends and neighbors are invited to meet the infant for the first time. Gold jewelry in the form of bracelets, amulets and pendants are given as gifts. The baby is bathed and dressed in new clothes. It is placed in a colander or sieve, which is decorated and the women surround the colander and sing. The colander is gently rocked or shaken while the chanting takes place. The strange part is that, the mother must step over the colander, without touching it, seven times. Meanwhile the other women bang vessels, yell and shout and sing at the top of their voices, making a deafening din. This ceremony is a sort of cleansing ritual for the newborn, to get rid of evil and bad spirits. All the noise and clamor is to show the newborn, what a nosy and loud world exists out there.

♝ The different tribes of Africa have diverse rituals and customs in all spheres of life. Here are some strange rites for different situations:

♣ At a funeral, children and unmarried adults are barred from entry. Family members stand on one side of the grave and other people on the other side. The family cannot speak at the funeral.

♣ The Baganda tribe of Uganda create or prepare graves for their members, when they are still children!

♣ Lobola is a marriage custom, where the groom and his family have to present gifts or money to his fiancée and her family. Some tribes regard Lobola as a compensation to the bride’s family for taking her away. It is also regarded as a thank you tradition, for the groom to express his gratitude to the bride’s family, for blessing their union.

♣ The Masai tribe has a rite of passage custom for boys above 12 years of age. For a boy to become a warrior of the tribe, he must be circumcised. This operation takes place without anesthetic and to show his bravery and strength, the young boy must not flinch or show any pain or emotion. He has to wear black clothes and live apart from his village for 4-8 months. This ceremony is called Emuratare.

What is perfectly normal to some, can seem strange to others, even in the same country. Celebrating the Chinese New Year is a normal festival for New Yorkers but folks from Wisconsin might find it a little weird. From the above different and sometimes weird customs around the world, one thing’s for sure, no matter what the occasion, there’s a custom or ritual for it.

 Kathy Kiefer


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