Weird America: 9 of the USA's most bizarre traditions

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 02.04.2020

Despite being a relatively young nation – at just 243 years old – America has developed its fair share of traditions. Most of us are familiar with the big hitters such as Thanksgiving, Halloween and Independence Day. But what about the USA's less well-known, more peculiar customs? Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of America’s most bizarre traditions.

1. Presidential turkey pardons

Since the 1940s, US presidents have been presented with a Thanksgiving turkey at a special ceremony and, occasionally, have spared the bird’s life by officially pardoning it. (It’s not clear what crime the birds committed in the first place to warrant a pardon.)

In 1989, George Bush Senior made the turkey pardon a permanent part of the ceremony, so it’s now an annual event. The happy turkeys are returned to a farm to live out the rest of their lives – which, unfortunately, usually last less than a year, as the birds have been so overfed that they contract heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses.

And if you’re wondering whether there’s some deeper meaning or symbolic reasoning to this ritual – there isn’t.


Turkey bird © Timin/Shutterstock

2. Nenana Ice Classic, Alaska

Ice on the Tanana River in Alaska accumulates to more than a metre deep during the winter. Back in 1906, six people in the city of Nenana bet on the exact time on the exact day that the ice would break in the spring.

A decade later, a small group of railroad engineers fired up the ice pool again, and it’s become an annual event ever since – and anything that’s been going over a hundred years in America is a very longstanding tradition indeed.

A "tripod" (with four legs) is placed on the ice and connected to a clock in the town. When the ice breaks, it stops the clock and the winner is declared.

From a prize of $800 in 1916, the winnings have upped just a tad, hitting a high in 2014 with a record $363,627. You can keep up-to-date with the ice action here, where a webcam refreshes every thirty seconds.


© Jay Yuan/Shutterstock

3. Groundhog Day, Pennsylvania

On February 2 every year, groundhog burrows across America are put under intense scrutiny for their powers to foretell seasonal change.

Folklore states that if it’s cloudy, the groundhog will emerge from its burrow and spring will come early. If it’s sunny, it will return to the burrow and winter will continue for six more weeks.

The tradition of going out to watch the groundhog has been around since as early as the eighteenth century, and the biggest celebration these days is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – the state where the tradition originated, and made famous by the 1993 film Groundhog Day.


Groundhog (Marmota monax) © Karel Bock/Shutterstock

4. Cherry Pit Spitting, Michigan

2019 was the 46th year of the International Cherry Pit Spitting Championship, held at the Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm in Michigan. It’s simple – eat the cherry and spit the pip as far as you can.

Contestants aren’t allowed to “pop” their cheeks with their hands, and no foreign objects or props are allowed. The record is an impressive 93.5 ft (28.5m); apparently, it’s all about curling the tongue.


© Volodymyr Tverdokhlib/Shutterstock

5. Ostrich racing, Arizona

Ostriches were first brought to the US in the 1880s, and ostrich-riding races sprung up in several states across the country. The biggest current race is in Arizona, at the Chandler Ostrich Festival, which celebrated its 31st year in 2019.

The event is a bit like a horse race, though riders have (unsurprisingly) significantly less control. The ostriches can run up to about 40mph (70kmph) – fairly similar to horses – and leap up to 16 feet (5m) in a single stride.


© You Touch Pix of EuToch/Shutterstock

6. Roadkill cook-off, West Virginia

With so much wildlife roaming around in the US and so many SUVs cruising on the highways, there’s bound to be some unfortunate collateral damage.

But every September, people in Marlington, West Virginia, have a Roadkill Cook-off, where you can try such delights as biscuits covered in squirrel gravy, teriyaki-marinated bear or deer sausage, all scooped up from the side of the road after an unfortunate accident.


© vepar5/Shutterstock

7. The National Hollerin’ Contest, North Carolina

Before the invention of the telephone, hollerin’ was more than just a simple yell. A cross between a yodel and a hunting cry, hollerin’ was a highly developed form of communication over long distances, especially popular in the American southeast.

In 1969, in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, The National Hollerin’ Contest was started to uphold this entertaining tradition, and has been going every year since.


© cheapbooks/Shutterstock

8. Pumpkin chucking, Delaware

Not only are pumpkins used as an ingredient in a dizzying array of seasonal dishes, with total disregard for the sacred division between sweet and savoury, but these huge orange squashes are also ceremoniously lobbed into the air as far as possible as part of a time-old ritual.

The country’s original and largest pumpkin chucking contest, Punkin Chunkin, is held annually in the state of Delaware. Contestants use trebuchets, catapults, torsions and air cannons to make those pumpkins fly. The furthest has travelled 4694 feet (1.4km).


© litle_devil/Shutterstock

9. The imperial system

The practice of using feet and inches, pounds and ounces and pints and gallons was passed to the USA by the British, modified slightly, and has stood the test of time in the face of strong opposition. The rival metric system was considered atheistic by some when it first emerged in the nineteenth century.

A periodical published in Ohio in the 1880s defended the traditional system as “a just weight and a just measure, which alone are acceptable to the Lord.”

Despite the fact that the metric system was formally sanctioned by Congress way back in 1866, the US remains the only industrialized country in the world not to have adopted it as the official system of measurement.

If you plan on visiting the USA in 2020, check with event organisers if individual events have been cancelled or postponed due to coronavirus.

Explore more of the USA with The Rough Guide to the USA. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Top image © xavitorrents/Shutterstock

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 02.04.2020

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