1. Customs and traditions are often bewildering to foreigners, partly because the customs are so ingrained that people accept them without ever thinking about them.
2. The baby shower is given by a close friend or relative of the expectant mother.
3. The mother-to-be is often invited to someone’s home on some pretext so that she can be surprised.
4. Through advice and expressions of envy, the expectant mother is reassured about the desirability of her situation.
5. A few years ago, it was almost unheard of for men to participate in baby showers.
6. In the past, men were banished from the delivery room, but today many men are with their wives to "coach" them through the birth.
7. Christians usually have a religious service, called a baptism, for the new baby.
8. Some customs are generally observed concerning fiancees, the engagement period, and the wedding ceremony.
9. Because priests, rabbis, and ministers are all legally empowered to marry couples, it is not necessary to have both a civil and a religious ceremony.
10. Some customs about the bride and groom are rather superstitious in nature.
11. Some churches and other places where weddings are held have recently banned the throwing of rice as being hazardous to guests, who can slip and fall on it.
12. At the time of death, one decision is whether the funeral will be held in a church or in a funeral home; another decision is whether the body will be cremated or buried in a cemetery.
13. The family may choose to have a memorial service instead of a funeral. In either case, the family may hold a wake, where the body of the deceased is displayed in its casket.
14. At a funeral, a eulogy is usually given by someone close to the deceased person.
15. Those who want to express their condolences usually send a sympathy card to the bereaved family.
a. Many ethnic groups still practice customs and traditions that their ancestors brought with them from their countries, yet if we look at the United States and the people as a whole, we can find a kind of general culture, (repeat)
b. One of the most common traditions associated with a birth is the baby shower, a nonreligious tradition observed by almost everyone in this society, (repeat)
c. As for the actual wedding ceremony and related celebrations, traditionally it is the bride’s family who pays for these expenses, (repeat)
d. For most people, whether they are religious or not, there are many decisions to be made at the time of a death, (repeat)
e. At a funeral service, it is customary for a religious leader to speak some words of comfort for the bereaved. In addition, a eulogy is usually given by someone close to the deceased person, (repeat)
Customs vary so much from country to country or culture that it’s often bewildering for a foreigner trying to understand the traditions and customs of a new country. Part of what makes it so difficult is that most of these customs are so ingrained in the culture that most local people accept them without ever thinking about them. Some of the reasons for the customs or traditions are historical and may have even been forgotten by the people who still practice these customs. When pressed for an explanation of some of their customs, people will sometimes be quite surprised that anyone would question their customs. "Doesn’t everyone do it this way?" might be their response, yet some of the customs that seem so natural to the people in the country or culture may seem quite strange and inexplicable to people new to a country. In a country as large as the United States, with people from so many different parts of the world and different cultures, it can be even more bewildering. Many ethnic groups still practice customs and traditions brought by their ancestors from their countries, yet if we look at the country and its people as a whole, we can find a kind of "general" culture with traditions that are often accepted or at least adapted to fit the customs and traditions of each immigrant group as it becomes assimilated into the larger culture. Today let’s look at some widely accepted customs and traditions of most Americans concerning
three of life’s most important events: birth, marriage, and death. Please keep in mind that these descriptions are very general and that society is changing quite rapidly in the United States and that people adapt and modify these customs to fit changing societal conditions and their own situations.
The birth of a baby is a momentous occasion in any family and is celebrated in some way or another. There are many traditions associated with this event. One of the most common ones is the baby shower, which is a nonreligious tradition observed by almost everyone in this society. A shower is given by a close friend or relative of the expectant mother shortly before the baby is due. In the past, showers were almost always arranged in secret so as to be a complete surprise to the mother-to-be. The mother-to-be was usually invited to someone’s home on one pretext or another, where she was surprised by her female friends and relatives who had planned this special party for her.
In recent years, the tradition has been modified, at least in some social circles, so that the shower is not always a surprise occasion, but one that the expectant mother knows about ahead of time.
Whether the baby shower is a surprise or not, the mother-to-be is showered with gifts for the new baby by her friends and relatives.
The gifts may be small ones or very expensive ones depending on the financial situation of the participants, but there is always a very emotional outpouring of good wishes for the expected baby and its parents. The gifts are always opened at the party, and everyone expresses great admiration for them. There’s always a lot of advice from experienced mothers and expressions of envy from those women who do not yet have children. This way, the expectant mother is reassured about the coming event and the desirability of her situation. A few years ago, it was almost unheard of for men to participate in baby showers. However, as I mentioned earlier, society is changing rapidly and men’s participation at baby showers is becoming more common. That reminds me of another related change in society in the United States. In the past, when births mainly took place at home, it was a strictly female event with men banished from the room where the baby was born. After women started going to hospitals to have their babies, men still never went into the delivery room and were expected to wait nervously in the waiting room for the doctor to come and tell them the good news. Today this is changing for many modern couples. Often they attend classes together to prepare them for the birth of the baby, and many men are with their wives in the delivery room and "coach" them through the birth along with the doctors.
After a baby is born, many, if not most, people want to have a religious service for their baby within a few weeks of the baby’s birth, even if they are not very religious themselves. Friends and family will attend the service, which will be held in a church or a synagogue. For Christians, this service is ordinarily called baptism.
There are many customs and traditions surrounding marriage and particularly the wedding activities themselves. Once again, it is very hard to generalize about these customs, as they vary so much among different people, but there are some customs that are quite generally observed. It is no longer necessary for a young man to ask permission of a girl’s father for her "hand," and among modern couples a woman may actually be the first one to bring up the subject of marriage, but most young people still very much want their parents’ approval of the person they hope to marry. It is still traditional for a young man to give his fiancee a diamond ring at the beginning of their engagement period. As for the actual wedding ceremony and related celebrations, traditionally it is the bride’s family who pays for these expenses. The wedding ceremony can be a very simple one, with only a few family members and close friends present, or it can be very elaborate, with hundreds of people in attendance. The traditional reception that follows the ceremony can be as simple as cookies and punch in the church or as elaborate as a large sit-down dinner held at a local hotel with a dance and a private orchestra following the dinner. Sometimes people are invited only to the wedding or only to the reception. At any rate, these events can usually be attended only by invitation. One very popular tradition associated with weddings is, once again, the shower that we mentioned in relation to birth. At this shower given before the wedding, the bride-to-be receives gifts to help her set up her new household, such as electrical appliances, sheets, towels, and pots and pans. In addition to shower gifts, wedding gifts are also expected from people who receive wedding invitations. Occasionally people choose not to have any kind of religious service at their wedding and opt to get married in a civil ceremony in a government building. However, a civil ceremony is not necessary if a couple decides to get married in a religious ceremony. Priests, ministers, and rabbis are legally empowered to marry couples, and it is not necessary to have both a civil and a religious ceremony. By the way, there’s an interesting tradition associated with weddings that is rather hard to explain, but then many traditions are. It is said every bride at her wedding should be wearing or carrying "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." The bride will be checked at the last minute to be sure that she has one of each of these. There are some other customs similar to this one that are rather superstitious in nature. For example, people believe that it is bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before the ceremony. And immediately following the ceremony, as the couple leave the church, people at the ceremony will throw rice at them to signal fertility—that is, a hope that they will have many children. Some churches and other places where weddings are held have recently banned the throwing of rice as being hazardous to guests who can slip and fall on it. Some suggest throwing rose petals or some other substitute for the rice.
In addition to birth and marriage, every society has to deal with death. Once again, it is hard to generalize about the customs surrounding death. Each religious group has ways to help its members cope with the loss of a family member or friend. For most people, religious or not, there are many decisions to be made at the time of a death. One decision is whether to have a funeral held in a church or in a funeral home. Another decision is whether to have the body cremated or not. If the body is cremated, a memorial service is held rather than a funeral. If the body is not cremated, a decision must be made about whether to display the body or not at the funeral. A day or two before the funeral, it is also quite common to hold a wake at a funeral home where the body is displayed in its casket. At the wake the family receives those people who wish to express their sympathy to the bereaved.
At the funeral service it is customary for a religious leader to speak some words of comfort for the bereaved. In addition, a eulogy is usually given by someone close to the deceased person. Sometimes many people will speak about the good deeds of the person who has died. After the religious ceremony, the body is usually taken to a cemetery, where it will be buried after another brief religious service. Of course, most people learn of the death of someone they know from the person’s family, but notices of funeral services are also printed in the newspaper, and anyone who wishes to attend the service is expected to without a personal invitation from the family. People who knew the deceased casually, but who want to express their condolences, usually send a "sympathy" card to the family. It is traditional to send flowers to a funeral, but it is important to check with a florist to be sure to send the correct kind of flowers. It’s sometimes important to know what kind of clothes to wear to a wedding or a funeral. Traditionally the bride wears white, and guests at the wedding are free to wear whatever colors they like, except for women, who do not wear white. At a funeral, it used to be necessary to wear black to show grief, but today this custom is no longer observed.
As I said before, in a society so large and diverse as the United States, customs can vary greatly from area to area, among different social, ethnic, and economic groups, and even from generation to generation.
I have tried to give you some idea of customs and traditions that are generally accepted, but, of course, it’s always wise to ask if you find yourself in a situation where you might be invited or expected to participate in one of these events. When in doubt, ask.
1. When are baby showers usually given?
2. What are two recent changes concerning the custom of baby showers?
3. What do we call the Christian religious service held after a baby is born?
4. Who traditionally pays for an American wedding?
5. Do most American couples have a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony when they get married?
6. What four things does tradition say a bride should have at her wedding?
7. By custom, who should not see the bride in her wedding dress before the wedding ceremony?
8. Under what circumstances is a memorial service held instead of a funeral?
9. What two things are often sent to the family of the deceased or to a funeral?
10. What color shouldn’t a woman wear as a guest at a wedding?