A few days ago, I was on my way to the hospital to visit a relative who’d just had surgery. My drive took me along beautiful windy, country back roads of my Mississippi home town. Minutes in I saw approaching flashing lights, as well as, a string of cars who had turned on their headlights. I’ve lived in a small town my entire life, so I knew what was considered proper etiquette in this situation. I pulled my car to the side of the road and stayed there until all the cars in the funeral procession had passed.
Waiting for the cars to pass gave me plenty of time to think and wonder. When did this Southern tradition start and Why?
My good friend Google brought me to varied sites and views, but the most agreed upon reason for this tradition dates back to the times of horse and buggies. With the introduction of motorized cars to the road, there was the practical consideration that the noise would spook the horses. So as a show of manners, people moved to the shoulder to allow them to pass. That tradition slowly evolved into a show of respect to the deceased and their family.
An article written by the New York Times explains the motivation behind the tradition:
“The act of pulling over, of making the surrounding world still as the funeral procession glides by, is intended for the family of the departed. The gesture not only makes the drive to the cemetery more fluid, by removing such obstacles as left-turning cars, it signals the family that even the strangers on the road recognize that the person in the coffin had worth. Drivers pull over to show the family that they recognize the dignity of the moment.” — Rick Bragg, NY Times (May 1,1997)
My search also lead me to a wide range of opinions on this one tradition. Many, citing the safety risks, feel it is an antiquated tradition that should be laid to rest. Others feel it is one of the few last vestiges of a kinder, more polite society who showed due homage to their elders.
As I pulled my car back into traffic, my mind started to think of the many Southern traditions that are a common part of our day. The customs…the food…colloquialisms we use…
We like our houses with front porch so we can see the world go by and just maybe what the neighbors are doing. You never know who needs some prayers.
In the South, the unofficial drink is sweet tea. Tea so sweet you are sure to develop diabetes after the first sip. Sweet tea is suitable accompaniment to any meal, including your breakfast of creamy, buttery grits. Ah, you aren’t entice by the idea of eating something called “grits”? Just give me a few minutes to stir up a batch with some fresh Gulf Shrimp and gravy or a few strips of fried catfish. I think I can convert even the most staunch critic of grits.
Just a few of the interesting words or phrases found in the Southern vernacular:
Is a shortened form of madam and is commonly used expression of respect and common courtesy and is in no way a commentary on your age or me taking on a subservient role. So if in passing I respond to you with “Yes Ma’am” or “No Ma’am”, it’s just the way my mama raised me to show due respect.
“Bless your Heart”
Or as my former Marketing teacher would say as she corrected some simple-minded student: “Bless your little heart.” Another variation is “Bless your pea picking heart”.
This phrase is sure to be an indicator of your southern heritage. Other areas of the country use “you all” or “you guys”, but here in the south, we condense it down to one easy to drawl word.
I know the people of the South are stereotypically portrayed as uneducated, backwoods folks. The truth is in general, we are a warm, hospitable people who still believe in taking our time and slowing down to speak to our elders. We often wave at strangers we pass on the street.
The article I posted on Travel and Cultural Awareness recently, looks at this topic from the angle of visiting another country. But it can be said that even within the United States when traveling to other regions, we have to understand the cultural differences.
So now it’s your turn. If you aren’t from the South, what Southern Traditions do you find puzzling? What fun, interesting or down right quirky traditions are unique to your region?
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