Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals, by Tad Tuleja
I received this book, along with quite a few others , many of which I still have to read, when some friends of mine went on a discount book-shopping effort. Their thought, at least as far as I can interpret it, is that this book was purchased to provide for research material on American customs, to see if it would bolster our shared perspective on the heathen nature of many customs. If this was their thought, it was an accurate one, as the author is generally candid about admitting what he calls the “pre-Christian” origin of many customs relating to Christmas and Easter and other festivals. This is not to say that the author’s understanding is perfect—he tends to take the accounts of the Talmud as Gospel truth on such matters as the age of Esau and Jacob when they separated or the age that Abraham supposedly rejected the henotheistic and monolotrous ways of his family , a fallacious post hoc explanation for the fact that a bar mitzvah occurs when a Jewish boy turns 13, and some of what the author considers to be Christian habits, like the crossed finger, appear to have been done by superstitious Hellenistic Jews who had already departed from apostolic doctrine and practice.
In terms of the contents of the book, the author divides up 296 rituals into various categories: etiquette, gestures and postures, transitions, the mating game, costume and appearance, ways of dealing with food, family affairs, entertainment, holidays, superstitions, and a miscellaneous catch-all category at the end for those rituals the author wishes to write about that did not fit into the other categories. In writing about these rituals the author mixes comments from research, where the sources are named and occasionally critiqued, personal stories from the author or family members, and a great deal of personal commentary and speculation, especially when it comes to cultural and sexual politics. How the reader feels about this personal commentary will depend on how much they appreciate comments like this one, about the wake: “On one level, such display is merely distasteful. On another, it serves a psychological function, albeit a sad and defensive one: to deny the reality of the obvious, to put on a clown’s face to keep from crying. There may also be a social function, however, that relates to primitive beliefs about the dead (35).”
What kind of reader would most appreciate this book? It is hard to say. On the one hand, this book does give a great deal of effort in explaining the origin of rituals, but the origin of many rituals is opaque and challenging, and this author both acknowledges too much uncertainty for the work to be a definitive one and engages in too much pontificating and distasteful speculation, especially when it comes to the author’s cultural agendas, to make this book’s commentary frequently unpleasant. Those readers who have a dim view of habits and traditions that spring from heathen cultures will find a great deal of ammunition against such practices, but the author appears to hold no such difficulty with pagan origins even as he frankly admits them in many cases. Nor does the author of this book appear to have any sort of knowledge about biblical law except as it can be found in its degraded form in the Talmud or in commentaries about the behavior of Hellenistic Christians who had already become greatly acculturated to the Hellenistic and other pagan European ways. The book is useful as reference material, but not a pleasurable book to read.
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