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Unusual Customs And Traditions From Around The World

One of the most educational parts of travel is discovering the interesting traditions or customs that other countries hold dear. They can be a real insight into a nation’s culture, as well as making marvellous post-trip dinner party stories (or good pub quiz questions). Here are a selection of some of the ones we’ve come across...

Gifts

If you’ve had a lovely time staying with someone, it seems obvious that you might want to give them a gift as a token of thanks. Some nations, however, can get extremely superstitious about gifts, so knowing what to avoid giving as a present can be very handy. The Chinese really don’t like being given clocks, handkerchiefs or flowers, as these items are associated with death, so you’ll be wise to cross them off your shopping list.

In Japan, it’s polite to give your gift with both hands, and avoid white wrapping paper, which may offend because it too is linked with death.

Colours

We’ve mentioned white being linked with death in Japan; many other Eastern countries, from China to India, are superstitious around this colour. It is colour of mourning and funerals; and standing apart from the normal pleasures of life. To wear it, or be given it, is to remind yourself of your own funeral. On a different note, The Chinese believe that the colour red brings good luck and wealth, which is why you’ll notice it’s the predominant colour in New Year festivities.

Finally, it’s often wise to avoid camouflage clothing. There are many countries where this is associated with aggression and even terrorism. What’s cool and trendy at home can easily be seen as a threat and land you in deep water somewhere else.

Christmas

If you are away for Christmas, one thing to remember is that in some countries (such as the UK much of Europe and The States), Christmas is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike, whereas in others, it is generally only recognised by the Christians living there. In many countries throughout Europe, the main Christmas festivities take place on Christmas Eve, with a large dinner made up of a number of courses and presents that are exchanged at midnight. Some nationalities, such as the Czechs, will also set a place for the Baby Jesus.

In Italy, presents are given on the 6th January. Unlike the universally-benevolent Father Christmas, Italy has a character called ‘La Befana’ who will only leave presents for those who have been good, and brings punishments for those who have not.

Eating

There are so many customs around eating that, if you don’t read up on where you are visiting, you could easily end up in hot water. Some examples of this include Japan and China where you should never point your chopsticks at someone. And, whilst slurping is accepted, licking your chopsticks is a no-no. In many places in South America, touching your food with your hands is very rude - you’ll be expected to eat food like burgers and chips with a knife and fork.

In Indonesia, people eat with their right hand. Their left hand is reserved for paperless toilets. However in order to fit in, stick to eating with one hand - eating with two is considered very bad manners.

Body Language

In many parts of the Far and Middle East, it’s considered very rude to show the soles of your feet to another person, so be careful to keep those flip flops on when you put your feet up while lounging in the sun.

Likewise, take care when gesturing to convey something. The thumbs-up gesture is akin to an insult in places such as Germany and South America.

In Japan, many normal greetings such as kisses or hugs are considered impolite. Japanese people bow - the person with a higher status bowing less than the person with the least status.

If you’re having difficulties with some customs and traditions, just remember some of our own may sound extremely strange to visitors too (“your children put their teeth under a pillow?!”). If you are travelling a little further afield, it does make sense to do a little reading up on what to expect to avoid embarrassment, or even worse, insulting someone else.

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Paula Gardner

Paula Gardner is the Press Officer for Essential Travel. Paula is big Italophile and loves many things about the country: its rich red wines, strong cheeses, creamy gelato, passionate people and lyrical language. Paula has been learning Italian for four years but is still shy about speaking it. On a career break inn her 20s she travelled the world, visiting every continent, but travel now tends to be to European cities. Apart from just about anywhere in Italy, other favourites are Lisbon and Palma in Majorca. Sicily is top of the bucket list.