MAXWELL:  A handful of questions on customs

11/26/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

_ “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson

At one time or another, each of us has been in Mr. Summers’ predicament, questioning the meaning of a cherished custom or tradition. And like Jackson’s black box _ a potent symbol in a chilling portrayal of ordinary, decent New England villagers who each year during the week of summer solstice stone to death one of their neighbors _ our customs and traditions, too, have lives of their own, recreating themselves in the absence of human reason, logic, common sense and memory.

The yuletide season, whose commercial spirit encompasses Thanksgiving, always puts me in an inquisitive, often iconoclastic mood.

What, then, about this cherished practice of eating Thanksgiving turkey? How did it evolve? We all have heard about how the Pilgrims ate turkey during that “first thanksgiving” in 1621. But this tale probably is just that, a tale. According to cultural historian Tad Tuleja, turkey did not become a widely accepted Thanksgiving Day staple until the 1860s.

Documents from the period state only that “fowl” and venison were served at the “first thanksgiving.” This “fowl” may have been turkey, but we just do not know. What we do know, though, is that turkey did not become the holiday’s absolute bird of choice until after World War II, when poultry producers mounted an aggressive campaign marketing a hybrid, juicy bird.

Ah, the joys of holiday commercialism.

Take Christmas. Most of us have some knowledge of the origins of Christmas presents. But what about the practice of gift-wrapping? Tuleja states that gift-wrapping began in the early 1900s, when machines replaced people in making gifts. For the first time, people could walk into stores and buy ready-made, inexpensive items.

Merchants soon realized that the mass production of machine-made presents, although convenient and profitable, drained the act of gift-giving of the intimacy that had been part of the custom when gifts were handmade.

What to do? Again, the commercial folk solved their problem, this time persuading shoppers that wrapping machine-made presents in decorative paper and ribbons imbued the gifts with the individuality, intimacy and love of old. No one mentioned, of course, that once the gifts were opened, the wrappings were best handled by tossing them in the trash.

America embraced the new custom.

As a Florida native, I always have been a faithful observer of the customs and traditions of the South, the most puzzling to me being our fascination with the mockingbird. This creature is so important in the region that five states _ Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas _ have made it their state bird.

I remember like only yesterday the time when I killed a mockingbird. I used a slingshot. My cousins B.J., Rock and Levern warned me that, because I had killed the bird, I would “die before the light of day.” I stayed awake all night, too terrified to shut my eyes.

Years later, after reading Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, I understood the source of my terror: Besides using the mockingbird to demonstrate the efficacy of custom, its power to direct conduct in small Southern towns where the races lived in separate universes, the narrative points out, with disturbing irony, that to kill a mockingbird _ an innocent creature that makes celestial music for all to hear _ is a “sin.” But to execute an innocent black man is of no great consequence.

Because I was born in Fort Lauderdale, a snowbird mecca, I am interested, too, in the custom of retiring to Florida. Why do people come here to retire? Are these modern-day invaders, like our most famous interloper, Ponce de Leon, seeking the fabled Fountain of Youth? Probably not. Most of today’s newcomers are old-timers who come to enjoy their final years.

Still, why Florida? Cultural historian Paul Zach writes that people retire to Florida because the Sunshine State is “their just reward for decades of labor in the landlocked and seasonally cold northern states.”

So, do people retire to Florida for the weather? Yes, but in an ironic way. “What is not so well known,” Tuleja writes, “is that the Florida retirement syndrome owes its genesis to electronic technology, that is, to the fans and air-conditioning units that eventually made the climate tolerable to Yankees.

That happened in the 1930s, which not at all incidentally was when the “grandparent boom” got started. It is an ironic footnote that among the earlier, pre-air-conditioning Florida vacationers was New Jersey’s electricity whiz, Thomas Edison. He went there for his health. Today’s retirees go there for the . . . state’s favorable tax laws.”

Just think, if air conditioners never had been invented, natives like me still could walk our condominium-free, “Old Florida” beaches, enjoying what once were miles and miles of sea oats, sea wheat and snow-white sand dunes sparkling in the sun.

That tradition, one of the few that I love, is gone forever.