United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #7: Customs

No no, nothing to do with the Border Patrol or Homeland Security.

And here we are at week 7 with Suzie and Steve where in light of the Scottish referendum for independence, we appreciate 10 things across 10 topics about our respective countries (Suzie is English, Steve is Scottish, and I am American of the US variety). This week we discuss customs and traditions that we love, and at first I thought I’d struggle with this list. But then I gradually realized that things regarded as customary or traditional were so ingrained in me as part of my American life that I’d taken them for granted as customs.

This list comes at an appropriate time because a huge proportion of these customs take place in the fall. Or autumn, as it were.

1. Punkin Chunkin
Punkin Chunkin is a competition held in Delaware where contestants compete to see who can hurl a pumpkin weighing 8-10 pounds (3.629-4.536 kg) the farthest. You may think this strange, but if you do, you’ve clearly never fired a pumpkin cannon. Following in the grand legacy of the potato gun of launching produce as projectiles, the mighty pumpkin hurling machines come in the form of air cannons (using pressurized air), catapults (using springs and such for potential energy), trebuchets (using counterweights for potential energy), and centrifugals (spinning the pumpkin and releasing it, sort of like a hammer throw). So while Punkin Chunkin’s provenance came from really bored people seeing how far they could throw pumpkins, nowadays it’s an exhibition of excellence in physics and engineering, capped off by pumpkins getting obliterated with a satisfying splatter. And it’s all done for charity and scholarships. And maybe bragging rights. And amusement.

Look for it on October 24th-26th at the Dover International Speedway.

2. American Forwardness
Without dating a UK citizen, I may not have recognized this characteristic as something Americans customarily exhibit. Of course the generalization varies from region to region, but it seems we have a reputation for being straightforward and speaking our minds. To cultures adept at nuance and subtext, we Americans can appear simple and clumsy, or even oafish; if I hadn’t grown up in a Chinese household, I may not have understood this perception. But it should speak to the strength of this quality in the American fiber that despite growing up in a Chinese community, the American side of me found the subtlety of my Chinese people maddeningly tiresome. Compare these arguments, which are actual arguments I’ve had:

I. Fraught with subtlety
Mother: I think you should stop dating that boy.
Me: Why?
Mother: Because he said “Good morning” to me when I came home.
Me: Why was that bad?
Mother: Because it’s the evening.
Me: And why is that bad?
Mother: By saying “good morning”, he was saying that I came home too late. He was criticizing me.
Me: …Mom, did you happen to notice that he says “Good morning” no matter what time of day it is or who he’s talking to? It’s sort of his own little joke.
Mother: He should still apologize because I perceived offense.
Me: Even if he didn’t do anything wrong?
Mother: <noncommittal grunts indicating that she might think about retracting the whole business later and that any further discussion would eliminate her brief pulse of contrition>

II. Not fraught with subtlety
Earl: It sounded like you were patronizing me.
Me: Well that was wrong, and I’m sorry.
Earl: Thank you.

I know which kind of argument I’d rather have every single time. Now that I’m a little tiny bit older, I can appreciate both straightforwardness and subtlety. Having stated that though, Earl can attest that on the whole, I am straightforward with little filter, and exhibit very little subtlety. He calls it refreshing, and we can revisit that assessment in a few years once it stops feeling so fresh.

3. Honoring the Military
Having such a large military has the interesting side effect of being respectful of that military. It isn’t just that we have Veterans Day (when we honor all soldiers who’ve served in the military) and Memorial Day (when we honor our fallen soldiers). There’s also a pervasive attitude that our soldiers are heroes and deserve to be treated as such, even if Veterans Affairs has a habit of dropping that ball. Veterans and soldiers on active duty are invited to stand at baseball games and are applauded for their service. Children in school are encouraged to write to or email soldiers serving abroad to maintain morale. For a year or so, I raided library sales in order to ship books (and a package of beef jerky; for some reason they always wanted jerky) to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Criticism of the military is usually lobbed at the administration behind the military but not often the military itself. We really appreciate our soldiers here, and their little dogs too.

It might be a bit of a strange custom, but one that I rather like.

4. Tailgating
Speaking of strange, it might seem bizarre to congregate in the parking lot of a sports venue hours before the actual sporting event to drink beer and grill food together. But socially speaking it’s actually great fun. For some reason, setting up a table in front of your tailgate with a group of your friends, eating an insane amount of meat, and playing games of both the drinking and the Cornhole variety with hordes of other people doing the exact same thing really charges up the atmosphere. Sometimes the tailgating even out-entertains the game everybody’s there to see, especially if you show up prepared.

5. The Super Bowl
Forget about the fact that a large number of people watching the Super Bowl didn’t even follow the postseason, let alone the regular season. Forget about the fact that behind the Champions League, which features teams from lots of European countries, the Super Bowl is the second most televised sporting event in the world. Forget about the fact that you’re coming off the high of finishing third in your fantasy league despite having never fantasy-footballed before and Yahoo! doing the autodraft for you. The Super Bowl is a ridiculously fun tradition for two reasons: the party, and the commercials.

I have known people who plan their year around the Super Bowl, and advertise their parties 6-8 weeks in advance to eliminate the possibility of competing parties. “What are you doing for the Super Bowl?” is a common refrain come January. Super Bowl parties are great because enjoying the spectacle that is football, and Janet Jackson baring a star-studded nipple, and Joe Namath wearing a fur coat to the coin toss, are things that are so much more enjoyable with friends. Additionally, because the Super Bowl is always on a Sunday, and kickoff is between 6 and 6:30 Eastern, it’s very easy to make Super Bowl parties kid-friendly so that the entire family can go.

But Super Bowl commercials! Companies pay enormous amounts of money for prime time slots because Super Bowl commercials are perennially a huge draw for a huge viewing audience. Here, have some of my favorites.

Oh lordy I need a tissue now.

6. Trick-or-Treating
I don’t know how other countries do Halloween. Maybe they focus more on the whole Samhain harvest thing but here in the United States, we dress our kids up in ridiculously cute costumes and send them door-to-door around the neighborhood gathering candy for us. They think this is great fun, and at the end of the night we make them hand over their hard-earned loot to us and tell them we’re doing it for their own health lest they binge on candy. Then as soon as they’re asleep, or at least not looking, we filch the good candy out of the stash and leave those weird fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls for them. This racket is so successful that  if Halloween falls on a weekday, neighborhoods will often move Trick-or-Treating to the nearest weekend. The kids think they’re being done this enormous favor of staying out later when, in fact, they’re being milked for maximum candy-begging.

Truly, Trick-or-Treating is just a mask for the older, greater tradition of child labor.

7. Groundhog Day
Every year on February 2nd, people gather around a hole in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania waiting for a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil to emerge. It’s more like a title than an actual name, like The Dread Pirate Roberts. The tradition says that if he emerges from his hole and sees his shadow, then we have another 6 weeks of winter left to go. If he doesn’t see his shadow, we’ll get an early spring. Bill Murray starred in a movie based on Groundhog Day playing a meteorologist who relives the same day over and over and over again, reporting on and experiencing the Groundhog Day celebration until he figures out how to end it (no spoilers!). “It’s like Groundhog Day” now exists as an idiom to indicate tedious repetition.

As prescient animals go, Punxsutawney Phil is pretty lousy. He’s been making predictions since 1887 with an accuracy rate of about 39%. I’m not sure why we keep turning to him with such regularity when other animals like Paul the Octopus can hit an accuracy rate of ~86%. The only explanation is that we’re just slaves to the custom.

8. The Pledge of Allegiance
Every child in the United States says the Pledge the exact same way with the exact same cadence: “I PLEDGE allegiance…TO the flag…of the U-NI-ted States of America. And TO the Republic…for WHICH it stands….ONE nation…UNder God…INdivisible, with liberty and justice for allll.” In general this is because every morning, kids across America recite the Pledge before school begins. To non-Americans, this can be quite off-putting and creepy, the major criticism being, “Do these children even know what they’re saying?” Well, no. They don’t. But that doesn’t mean our kids are being raised as neo-fascist automatons (at least, not politically – just corporately).

Collectively, the citizens of the United States have an incredibly strong sense of patriotism. We’re taught to recite the Pledge, and when our malleable minds are ready for it, to understand what pledging allegiance means. We’re also taught to respect our anthem whenever it’s played and to feel proud whenever we see our flag waving. However, this patriotism doesn’t obviate the ability to decide we’d rather not say “under God”, or be objective and see our country’s faults. In fact, I’ve referenced many of these faults in my posts (e.g., our shoddy healthcare system, our inability to provide fair education for all children regardless of socioeconomic status, the fact that only 19 states allow same-sex marriages while the remaining 31 are either fighting constitutional bans or fighting the overturning of constitutional bans, our inability to protect children from being shot at school).

But when something happens and we need to come together as a nation, we do so easily and rapidly. I remember the day after September 11th, I drove to work sad and barely able to contain the tears: I’d been commuting when the radio announced that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been hit the day prior, so traveling along the same route had been a bit of a trigger. But driving under the overpasses, I noticed that someone had already put an American flag up on each one. I remember seeing a picture of a neighborhood street where before September 11th, only one house was flying a flag, but after, every single house had a flag on display. I also remember seeing messages of sympathy and condolence from citizens of other nations holding Americans flags up. What I felt was this amalgam of sorrow, and comfort, and pride, and gratitude. Even now I can’t think about it without getting teary. A similar sort of galvanization occurred after the Boston Marathon bombings with “Boston Strong”.

We get mocked a lot for the whole “‘Murica!” thing. And I get it; we can be a little creepy and gung-ho, and sometimes dense (Holla, Steve!). But it’s not always misplaced or misguided, and sometimes our patriotism is something to be proud of.

9. Square Dancing
When I was in 6th grade, which back then was the last grade of elementary school, we were forced to file into the gym and learn how to square dance. I have no idea why. What exactly is the relevance of lining up, dreading which boy you had to touch next (unless it was the cute boy Jason, omg, squeal!), listening to a caller drawl out instructions like “Swing your partner, do-si-do, promenade, and bring her home!”, and coordinating our movements with those instructions?

It wasn’t fun. I didn’t enjoy it. But the reason it’s on this list is because just about everybody of my generation was forced to endure it. It didn’t matter where you lived geographically; neither California nor Maryland are really hotbeds of folk dancing, yet I’m told we all had to honor our partners. Grand right and left. Follow our neighbors. It pains me that these calls and not more useful things occupy my memory. If there’s anything that joins people together, it’s mutual suffering. And that’s what square dancing is.

10. Pie on Holidays
I know I already covered Thanksgiving in the food list. But I owe it to my blog to pay tribute to the pie. It is custom to have pie at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Pumpkin or Sweet Potato are required, and Pecan and Apple/Pear are very welcome. Some people like to buck tradition and serve non-traditional foods. I once served two ducks and a rockfish for Thanksgiving, so I completely understand this iconoclastic behavior.

But never skip the pie. Or I will kill you.

You may serve desserts accompanying pie (I highly recommend sticky toffee pudding) but you may not skip the pie altogether. To do so is to drive a dagger into the very heart of the holidays. If you don’t have pie at the holidays, you might as well tell your children you snapped off one of Rudolph’s antlers, and went back in time and coughed on Squanto, and that that Grinch book was written with you in mind. Those chains on Jacob Marley, were they caused by his greed, or the paucity of pie stemming from his greed? When pie is the last course served for Thanksgiving dinner and thus the last memory of the meal you’ve just partaken of, what is it you’re really giving thanks for?

It’s pie, that’s what.

Custom of Shame: Black Friday
When American capitalism forces retail workers to leave their families early on Thanksgiving so they can sustain abuse from overzealous shoppers buying electronics, when it’s possible to keep a running tally of the number of casualties taken due to Black Friday, and when people are encouraged to spend their money on an intentionally short supply of goods that aren’t even top-of-the-line instead of staying in with their loved ones, it’s time to put that shitty custom to bed.

Shop Cyber Monday people, or wait for deals later in the month. It’s just not worth the loss of reason and humanity.

Well that was freakishly long. What are your favorite customs that I may have missed?


33 thoughts on “United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #7: Customs

  1. I’m shocked you missed this bit of Americana: taking chicken and rabbit shaped marshmallow treats, and making strange dioramas out of them. It took me a week to convince my British coworkers that this was a thing.


  2. Pingback: United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #7: Customs… | Steve Says...

  3. You are so right on all of them! As an American who was barely tolerated for 8 years while living in Canada, i have always cried during the National Anthem and the 4th of July is a real tear-jerker. And pie – damn i have to have pecan pie on Thanksgiving or I will not speak to anyone for a month! And lord square dancing! I did that in 6th grade too and I hatedmit with mymwhole being. Except when Billy Craig was my partner ……… Squeal back!


  4. I love Groundhog Day. Is it still the same Phil? I did actually think Super Bowl was only one yearly event. Also, is driving through America, stopping at a random gas station and then encountering some axe murdering nutters further up the track not a common practise in America? Lol.


    • Nah, groundhogs don’t live very long. It probably goes like this:
      “I am not the Punxsutawney Phil. My name is Chauncy. I inherited this job from the previous Punxutawney, just as you will inherit it from me.”

      from groundhog to groundog.

      And yes, the Super Bowl is only once yearly. And stopping at random gas stations and then encountering some axe-murdering nutters further up the track is only common if you still look beautiful after several days of not showering.


        • Leg-wrestling matches.

          Also, they take the top teams from each conference (there are 16 teams in 2 conferences) + a few wildcard teams (the teams with the next best records after the teams who’ve clinched playoff berths) and pit them against each other in single elimination until there’s only 1 team per conference left, culminating in the Super Bowl.

          It goes regular season-> wildcard playoffs -> playoffs -> Super Bowl. Everything after regular season is “postseason” 🙂


    • Oh good. Part of me worries I’m not doing an adequate job representing this place, but if it’s resonating with you, I feel a little reassured!!

      Thanks so much for the comment. And the reassurance!


  5. It’s fun to read all of you three. I studied in UK for two years in an American Internationl school so wasn’t really exposed to British culture and never visited Scotland. From outside these three different cultres are perceived as very similar and reading your posts makes me more eager to discover the differences myself.
    Can’t wait to read next posts 🙂


      • You are doing the US justice 🙂 I never considered Americans very open people (almost all my neighbors are Americans working at a military base). However, now I think I’m more curious about visiting the States!


        • Ah, military bases might be one of those regions where people are slightly less open 🙂

          As a lifetime east coaster, I find the west coast a bit friendlier, but the east coast has lots of charm. You should definitely visit!


  6. Jenny, a few of these customs were brought in by immigrant cultures to the U.S.. For real.

    I don’t know how other countries do Halloween.

    Oh, the Celts (Irish and the Scots) brought over trick-or-treating, all right. But it’s evolved so much that those from the homeland don’t recognize it as such. No, seriously, I remember someone on Kenneth “The Culture Monk” Justice’s blog, someone from Scotland, ragging on American trick or treating, and pumpkin jack-o-lanterns. Then he went on to describe its very origins still observed in the little fishing village he was from. The difference? The kids didn’t dress up, but they’d sing or dance for baked goods and other treats, and Swedes (a rutabaga, which is a turnip, bascially) were what were carved into jack-o-lanterns.

    I tried to explain to him that pumpkin squashes were much easier to be had than turnips in North America, and hence, pumpkins were subtituted for turnips. The actual trick-or-treating business was a tougher explanation.

    Another product of Celtic immigration is corned beef and cabbage around St. Patrick’s time. Of course it’s not Irish… it’s a variation of the New England boiled dinner, and corned beef brisket has been far cheaper to obtain for years than proper lamb. When Christopher Kimball (of America’s Test Kitchen) says it’s so, you can trust him, right? He is from Vermont, after all…

    Groundhog Day comes to us from German immigrants, which have been our largest immigrant group until recently. The original observance was with a hedgehog, but none are to be found here. The groundhog (or woodchuck?) was substituted in.

    Then I’m amused when I read Dutch kids marvelling that their Sinter Klaas is just like our Santa Claus. Of course he is… we most definitely took that wholesale from Holland. Sinter Klaas was gradually Anglicized to “Santa Claus”.


    • Oh, being such a young country comprising so many immigrant cultures, these lists have never been about things that are American in origin, with perhaps the exception of the inventions and writers lists. Just things that Americans largely do or have. 🙂 Like Christopher Kimball. I love Christopher Kimball.

      I’m waiting for us to have Krampus. One day….


  7. Pingback: United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #8: Actors… | Steve Says...

  8. Pingback: The Case for More Women in Tech, and How It Relates to Pie | O Pie-oneers!

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