Eating and drinking because It’s The Rules

Last week it was St George’s day. So as I usually do on St George’s day, I bought some English ale and had one. Not because I’m fanatically a proud Englishman, but because it’s a bit of fun. (I sometimes have a Guinness on St Patrick’s day.)

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That got me thinking about the fact that there are so many little excuses to eat or drink something for a certain day because “it’s tradition”. Off the top of my head:

  • Pancake Tuesday
  • Robert Burns Night
  • St George’s Day
  • St Patrick’s Day
  • Christmas Day
  • Thanksgiving (not so much in the UK)
  • Chinese New Year
  • Diwali
  • Wimbledon (!)

I’m sure there are many more (do post a comment if I’ve forgotten any obvious ones). And there are more tied not so much to specific dates but to generic times of the year (it’s traditional to have mince pies around Christmas, hot cross buns around Easter, Pimms in the summer and so on).

Now, I’m not suggesting that there’s any kind of forceful obligation against one’s will – you’re rarely ostracised just because you’re not having a pancake on a certain day, but there is a certain social consciousness that encourages people to conform. So I got to thinking why this may be – why many of us feel like we ‘ought to’ eat or drink something based on the date or time of year.

One reason is that we just like to belong. There is a ‘tribal’ instinct in humans: it’s at its worst in conflicts and suffering caused by disagreements, and at its best in good natured competitiveness. Arguably we’ve lost some of this with the increasing connectedness of the world, and where this has reduced conflicts and bigotry, that’s great. But maybe we’ve also lost a certain feeling of belonging, and doing things together in the name of a particular day makes us feel like part of something bigger. I wonder how many Scottish people eat Haggis because they feel like they ought to, rather than actually liking it?

Another reason is that there is something that connects the food with the date. For example, in Japan on New Year’s day often people will have a special feast called osechi, which is primarily made up of things that will keep well – because shops were closed around New Year for too long to keep perishable foods. Or some people would probably argue that Pimms just ‘hits the spot’ in hot weather. So there could be a rational reason why you would eat certain foods at certain times or dates.

(As an aside – I suspect there is a part of the consciousness that works the other way. So we might eat mince pies to ‘feel Christmassy’ or have Pimms ‘to feel like we’re in the summer’.)

But the most likely reason is that it’s just a bit of fun. We don’t care if we don’t eat Haggis at all, but it’s quite fun to have it once a year, because it stops you thinking too hard about what it’s made of. It’s not vital to belong, though it’s nice to; it’s not absolutely essential to buy non-perishable foods any more, because we have refrigerators. But it’s a nice thing to try something different, and enjoy it (or not).

And that leaves 364 days each year to drink superior, German, beer.

One thought to “Eating and drinking because It’s The Rules”

  1. When I was a child, birthdays meant Crown of Lamb with mashed potatoes, peas and Heinz tomato soup instead of gravy.

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