The informant is a 51-year-old international businessman who has frequently traveled across Europe and Asia to meet with clients for the past 20 years.
Over a relaxed nine holes of golf, I asked the informant if there were any dining customs or etiquette that have stood out to him throughout his travels. He went into detail about proper German etiquette when enjoying a drink with friends, family, or business connections.
“It’s always a great time drinking in Germany, especially for a beer connoisseur like myself. Whenever I’m out to lunch or dinner for a business meeting, we always grab a beer and make a toast before drinking. Usually the toast is just to a successful partnership in the future, or to health and happiness. What you’d expect. One thing that’s really important following this toast is that you look whoever it is you’re drinking with in the eye when you ‘cheers.’ It is considered extremely rude not to. They joke that if you fail to look someone in the eye it means seven years of bad sex, but what it would really result in is whoever you’re with thinking that you’ve been dishonest or are hiding something from them.”
This German custom of looking someone in the eye reveals that in German custom, authenticity and personal connection are important. Toasts usually follow a celebration or accomplishment of some kind, and so eye contact can be seen as a way of solidifying whatever the toast was made to. If one man makes a toast to good health and the other fails to look him in the eye, then the ma who made that toast may begin to wonder whether the other is hoping for him to become ill. The superstition that failing to make eye contact will lead to seven years of bad sex is a playful way of reminding Germans of this custom, or of highlighting its importance to foreigners. I thought that this particular folkway made a lot of sense, given the intimate nature of a toast and taking into account the context in which the informant learned of it. Since the informant is often out to eat with business connections and is working to create a professional relationship, it is important that he look his German clients in the eye to let them know that he is understanding of their culture and that they can trust his word and that he will honor their negotiations.
And then we have our Midsummer…which is the biggest drinking holiday in the world I would say. It’s the Friday of, that’s the closest to the summer solstice. And the origin is, that way back when we were pagan, we would pray to the gods for a good harvest. So…we would raise a maypole…which is a big penis…directed into the ground, to fertilize the ground to have a good harvest. And we would dance around this penis, you know, it’s a big thing you have to do. And that night, if you’re a woman, you have to pick seven different types of flower, out in the wild, not in the store. You have to go out in the wild and pick them from a field, seven different ones, put em under your pillow, when you sleep that night you’re gonna dream about the person you’re gonna marry. It’s all about fertility! It really is.
So you danced around the maypole?
Oh yeah! We do it every year.
What was that like?
It’s, I mean now it’s more of a fun, family, keeping the tradition…it’s not so much a pagan ritual anymore. But the actual like, you carry the maypole in, all the men in the village or society help raise it. And the women have spent the whole day decorating it with small flowers. And then traditional music is still playing…
And everyone’s drinking during this?
Everyone is drinking all day. So this is the progression. Usually you have lunch, where you eat herring, herring and potatoes, that’s when you start drinking, you have some schnapps. And beer obviously with your lunch. Then you go to the area where the maypole is. And usually it’s organized, your society or village, if you’re a bigger community there are several spots so you can walk there close from your house. And there’s musicians, that play music so that you can dance to… There’s usually games of different sorts… and you know, if you’re too drunk at this point you just enjoy coffee, and you know. So it’s basically sort of desserts, but like thicker desserts, so you have coffee, you have cinnamon rolls, that kinda stuff. And you sit on the ground, on blankets, everyone brings there own blankets around this pole. So everyone dances, and then they’ll take a break, there’s some raffle stuff… And then after that you go home, and if you’re a bigger society you go home and then you have games, like seven or ten different games that you compete in against each other. And usually it’s by teams, and if you’re fewer people it’s individual. So you do that closer to where your home is, and then there’s a barbecue, and you keep drinking. And I mean you keep drinking throughout the whole day, like you start drinking at 11am in the morning, and then you keep drinking. And because it’s in the middle of summer the sun never sets, so you’re up all night. So you have your barbeque, you keep drinking, and then 2am, the sun is still up, you go skinny dipping…and then…you know……and then you pass out. And then you have sex in a bush. Everyone has sex, nine months after Midsummer there’s a lot of babies being born. Because everyone has sex, outside, you just pick a bush and have at it. You would love it. And that’s how you end your night. You easily drink…..probably a liter of schnapps per person. And probably uh….depending on how much of a beer drinker you are but let’s say you’re going with beer…probably drink about 3 gallons of beer? You know. So it’s a fun holiday.
So when specifically does it happen?
End of June. Cause harvest is in the fall for us.
What is the age group of people that are dancing around the pole?
Anything from one year olds that can hardly walk, to 85-year-olds. It’s a whole family thing. Usually what happens is, eventually after the barbeque, if you’re still a young teenager, you celebrate with your family, and then you head out to a party somewhere. But once you get old enough, like if you’re past 18, like you can still do it with your family during the day, you’ll have lunch and the celebration around the maypole with your family, and then you’ll hit the barbeque party, you’ll have dinner with your friends. And then party all night long. And if you’re doing it extra special, if you’re out in archipelago, you might leave…because everyone is off Friday, except like, firemen, policemen, hospital people. Everyone else is getting fucked up. So Friday’s always off, you’ll start Thursday, you’ll fill your car up with alcohol and food, take your boat out to your summer place which is out in the archipelago on an island, and you stay there the whole weekend. And midsummer’s on the Friday, on Saturday you wake up and…start drinking again! And then Sunday, you have a couple of beers just to…mellow out. And then you go home. It’s a lotta fun. And I mean, it’s a pagan ritual. That’s what it’s from. So that’s one of the ones that’s not gonna go away…ever. That one will definitely stay around.
This is a common spring festival throughout Europe, traditionally occurring in Germany, England, and Sweden, according to The Festival Book by Jennette Lincoln. This is a spring fertility festival, both about fertilizing the ground for a good harvest, and also about the young generation reproducing and starting a new generation. There are many rituals with symbolic (phallic) imagery, and games and celebrations in which families come together and also young people from different families. Flowers are a big symbol, as the pole is decorated with flowers, the girls have to collect flowers and put them under their pillows, etc. Girls both ‘come into bloom’ in this liminal pre-adulthood stage in which they become able to bear children, and are also ‘deflowered’, two symbolic meanings in relation to flowers. Alcohol is clearly a big part of the festival, both in celebration of plenty and abundance, and probably also as a way for the young people to loosen up, party, and “interact” – which seems to be expected and even condoned by the adults and families. People copulating outside in nature also has a connotation of fertilizing the earth for a good harvest.
The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she said when I asked about her step-daughter’s wedding a few years ago, of which I was in attendance.
Informant: “Drinking is really big in Russian culture—you probably know that. We have a lot of family dinners and there is always drinking, of wine or vodka. Guest will bring wine or the host will bring out their favorite wines. My parents actually have a whole spreadsheet of the different wines in their wine closet. Since drinking is so much a part of Russian culture, there are traditions that go along with it. The biggest thing I can think of, I think, would be toasts. Like, there are certain traditions of what toasts you say in what order. Second toast is usually for the host. The first toast is always for the occasion you are gathered for, and second for the host. The third one is for those who are at sea.”
Interviewer: “Are there lots of people at sea…?”
Informant: “No. We say ‘at sea’, but it’s really more a reference to those who are not with us—either dead or not the at the dinner table.”
Interviewer: “Hmm, that’s really interesting that the toast for people not at the table is the ‘at sea’ toast. Do you have any idea why that is?
Informant: “No, I don’t know. I mean, drinking culture was a big think in Russia in general. And I guess originally there may have been a lot of traders? Or people at sea? What I think is so distinct about Russian drinking is this tradition of you can’t drink unless you toast. You have to validate your drinking with a toast.”
What my informant said about toasts being a way of validating drinking stuck with me. I feel like a lot of folklore, or festivals and rituals, at least, is centered in validation—validating customs already set in place, validating a relationship or new union to be had, validating a new stage in a person’s life, validating one’s entering adulthood, etc. What is sometimes seen as merely paying homage to an earlier time, or to a certain religion one follows, usually has more influence than that.
When I asked my informant about why the third toast is said for those “at sea”, when no one I know of her family is actually off at sea, it seemed like the first time the informant had really been considering the question. This illustrates the tendency not to question the traditions and the folklore one grows up with, contrasted with the tendency many people have to critique or ridicule other traditions and folklore, ones the criticizing individual hasn’t grown up with. This speaks to the us them mentality that we see quite often with folklore—one example of the mentality’s presence is in practical jokes, a form of folklore that often serves as an initiation, or a demonstration of the tightness of one group and the outsider-ness of the one being pranked. However, it is worth noting that in the person being pranked, they are many times being initiated into the group of the pranksters…
For a slightly different interpretation of the third toast, see an article in the New York Times from 1995:
My informant is a USC student of Armenian and Caucasian origin, born and raised in California and regularly exercises through distance running. She is also a human biology major with an emphasis in human performance.
“So during a long day of a run—Melissa and I would hate it—and really count down our ten miles until we could go eat at La Barca. And finally when we were done we were rewarded with two-three margaritas, chips and salsa, and a grande colossal burrito and surprisingly we would wake up and run ten times faster. A couple times we averaged a 6:33 mile for 8 miles consecutively so, every time before we had a hard workout the next day we would prep at La Barca before…and it worked pretty well this past summer! And so I guess its just tradition now kind of, with me and her and the other girls who run with us sometimes.”
Analysis: This example of acquired folklore demonstrates how superstition and repetition can create a ritual. My informant believed that there was an undeniable tie between her performance while running and the consumption of several margaritas and Mexican food at La Barca restaurant prior to her hard workouts the next day. The initial improvement of her mile time gave her “proof” that her ritual/ceremony before her rough workouts was successful which prompted her repeating the ritual and spreading what she had learned with her other running buddies until it became a tradition within their group to partake in drinks and Mexican food before workouts. This piece of folklore also serves a social purpose and a means of bringing people together and strengthening bonds between friends, as well as marking a distinct trait or practice within this specific running group.
A couple of my roommates have gone to my informant AF’s house for dinner. Each time my friends have come home at least tipsy, maybe even drunk. It is atypical for my friends to come home tipsy or drunk from dinner with a friend’s parents. Yet, when they go to AF’s house, it always seems to happen. I wondered why.
Both of AF’s parents were born in Russia. As a result, AF grew up in a Russian American home. Besides the fact that vodka is a Russian drink, I’ve wondered why Russians seem to be so good at drinking. My friend AF explained that it is custom for men to drink anything and everything in Russia. Why? AF explained, “If you don’t drink in the pace with other people, you are a spy in Russia. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man refuse a drink. Or at least it is very rare.”
This mentality is definitely present within the Russian American community. In fact, this mentality perseveres outside the community. My friends expressed that they felt uncomfortable or rude turning down a drink in AF’s home. The paranoia that AF’s parents experienced in Russia has had residual effects. It is custom for Russian Americans to prove that they are not spies by drinking heavily and possibly impairing their judgement, simply because they can.
My informant, CS told me about her experience as a “big sis” to her guy-friend Josh’s little in a fraternity on USC’s campus. Within USC’s Greek system, members of fraternities get a “big bro” as well as a “big sis.” The big bro usually picks one of his good girl-friends to be his little’s “big sis.” Big sisses are revealed on one night during the semester. From my understanding, it is typical for big sisses to get their little bro very drunk and dress him up in a humiliating costume for part of the night.
CS detailed her experience as a big sis.
It was just me and KK [her friend]. So we walked over to the house together. So I get him there. And I’m really bad at the “drink, drink, drink” stuff. I got there just in time to put him in a room. And then Josh’s lights were off. And then we took off the blindfold and I had candy and cupcakes or something.
We didn’t have any hard alcohol. We just had beer. So we taped two beers to him. But then they were cold, so we put two towels around the beer before we taped them to his hands. It was sad and weird!
The next year when Jacob, my little, got a little, he also got this very sweet guy. And his big sis, Meghan, ended up doing the exact same thing.
CS’s reaction to her big sis experience reveals the expectations of such an experience. CS’s story suggests that a big sis should force her little bro drink heavily. Yet CS did not make her little bro drink heavily. Instead she gave him some beer and made sure he was comfortable while drinking it.
CS and Meghan’s experience suggests that big sis and little bro nights do not meet the expectations of most college students within Greek life at USC.
Informant: Take a shot, take a shot! Take a god-damned shot! If you can’t take a shot like a/an [sorority nickname] can, then you shouldn’t have a shot in your motherfucking hand! Take a shot!
The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She is a member of a sorority, and was born and raised in Chicago, IL.
The informant first learned this drinking song, or chant, on the night after she received a bid from her sorority. She and her new “sisters” gathered in the largest bedroom of her sorority house, poured shots of Fireball (a popular brand of cinnamon flavored whiskey) and preformed the chant before knocking back their drinks. The informant has since preformed the chant only a handful of times—all occurred with other sorority sisters before a night of partying, and sometimes during. The informant claims she has also heard members of other USC sororities sing the chant with their own sorority’s nickname in place of the informant’s. Nevertheless, the song stands a symbol of initiation into a sorority; only members can preform it.
Informant: I learned Rage Cage from [older sorority sister], actually! Yeah, she taught it to me at [fraternity]. We were over there one night, and she was like, “[informant], why aren’t you drunk yet? You gotta get on my level!” So she got some of the guys in a circle around the table—the beer pong table—and put a bunch of red cups in the middle of the table, and we filled them all with a little bit of beer. And then she took two empty cups and uh, gave them to two of the guys. And they each had one ping pong ball, and they had to bounce the ping pong balls into their cup. And when the guy on the left of the other guy got his in, he’d pass the cup and the ball clockwise. If the guy on the right got his ball into the cup before the other guy, he got to stack his cup in the other guy’s cup, and then he’d pass the stacked cups to the next person in the circle. The guy who lost—who didn’t get his ball in and got another cup stacked in his—has to drink one of the cups of beer in the middle of the table. Then he can use that empty cup and try to bounce the ping pong ball into that. He passes the cup clockwise when he gets it in.
Me: So you just keep passing the cups clockwise in the circle?
Informant: Yeah. Well, unless someone gets the ball into the “chasing” cup—the cup that isn’t stacked—on their first try. Then they can pass it to whoever they want.
Me: Is there, like, someone you want to pass to in particular?
Informant: You want to pass it to the person to the right of whoever has the stacked cups. It’s easier to get them, then.
Me: How does the game end?
Informant: When all the cups are stacked. But [older sorority sister] plays it so, like, the last person to lose—to get a cup stacked in theirs—has to chug a whole drink.
The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She is a member of a sorority, and was born and raised in Chicago, IL.
The informant told me she has played Rage Cage at numerous fraternity parties since learning it during her sophomore year at USC. The game is usually played in mixed-gender groups of five or more players (up to as many as can fit around the table, although a group larger than twelve may have trouble keeping the attention of players stuck on the opposite side of the circle from the action) and takes place at fraternity houses or otherwise private location where those who are not yet of the legal drinking age can participate.
This drinking game is typically played early in the evening as a way for men and women to loosen up around one another. Since fraternity party culture at USC revolves around partygoers being intoxicated, Rage Cage is often used as a comfortable and fun way for participants to ease into drinking for the night. The competitive “stacking” element of the game also allows for participants to gang up on certain members of the group who they believe should drink more.
“Ahahah it honestly never gets old, we lose it every time and nobody is doing anything but staring at it.”
The Mustache Game is a drinking game wherein people make a cut out mustache and tape it to a random spot on a television screen — typically not near the edges. Then, everyone sits around watching TV. If the mustache perfectly lines up with a character’s upper lip, everyone watching drinks. The excitement from the game comes from when the mustache gets extremely close but the character keeps moving around it.
The informant says it’s the most fun drinking game he plays since it’s pretty passive — people can hang out and watch TV but also laugh incessantly at all the near misses. He also claims people can’t focus on anything else so it ends up getting turned off so people can actually talk or do other things. Sometimes he varies the game by having people draw or cut out different types of mustaches or facial hair. He made mention of putting two mustaches on the screen at once, but it apparently has never lined up. If it did, everyone would go crazy, he said.
This sounds like an incredibly fun drinking game. It’s really easy to set up, works on a lot of different TV shows I’m willing to bet, and is decently passive. To be fair, it’s not really much of a game — there’s not a ton of user input, a win state, or a risk of loss. But “drinking game” can connote more than traditional games, as its just an activity used as a platform to drink because in honor of. I also like the idea of expanding the rules — different mustaches, multiple mustaches, what channel you choose. It’s a very modern drinking game obviously, but accessible by many.