What’s up with those irrational cottage traditions?

Published: February 5, 2021

The words "What are the rules?" written in chalk By ESB Professional/Shutterstock

“My friend gets irritated when some of us want to watch trashy movies during our girls’ weekends at the cottage, but she is perfectly happy to have us all read trashy magazines instead. She says there is a difference, but I can’t see it.”

If I had to guess, I would say that you are likely not part of a multi-generational, old-fashioned cottage family, accustomed to collecting regatta pennants and scratching tortured verse on sheets of birchbark. Because the difference you cannot see—irrational cottage tradition—is certainly real but invisible to outsiders and newcomers. Most cottagers have moved on from these old habits, and many never have observed them in the first place. But there remains a sizeable circle of cottage folk, like a splinter group of old-order Mennonites with spectacular waterfront property, who still cleave to the old ways as best they can.

Don’t misunderstand me: there’s nothing wrong with keeping traditions alive. Birchbark poetry and the long-weekend sea-flea race are both worthy pursuits. But some cottage “traditions” are nothing more than weird and arbitrary rules disguised as heritage moments. These impenetrable regulations vary from cottage to cottage and stipulate, in your case, that reading In Touch Weekly is acceptable but watching Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack is verboten. But they can just as easily specify that there can be no television viewing at the cottage, except for Wimbledon and the summer Olympics. I have been to cottages where listening to any form of broadcast or recorded music was forbidden, but godawful campfire singalongs were actually encouraged. At some places the irrational rule stipulates that once you are at the cottage you stay put, no matter what. Others define a trip to the local fudge factory or movie theatre as absolutely mandatory. That’s the problem with irrational cottage rules. Guests never know where they stand.

11 ways to prevent guests from overstaying their welcome

Fortunately, even the most draconian examples of irrational rules eventually wither away and die. It only takes a short trip in the wayback machine to remember when having a television at the lake was close to heresy, because “real cottagers” didn’t allow them. Neighbours would get judgey-judgey about this stuff, particularly when the irrationality of one property (human-powered watercraft only) wasn’t shared at the one next door (internal combustion for all). I can recall that not so long ago, cottagers were up in arms over cellular phones, the newest Satan in cottage country. Useless and unnecessary devices, they argued. People talked about banning them from their cottages, and some even made guests hand over their phones. Groups of cottagers with flaming brands and pitchforks railed against cell towers and their red beacons that ruined lake life entirely and caused migratory loons to fly back to Florida for the summer. Today, of course, cottagers lobby their MPs for expanded cellular coverage and bandwidth better able to stream Crave at their place by the lake. When it comes to irrational rules, maybe change is inevitable. Personally, I used to have a thing about backup generators at a cottage because they ruined the super quietude of a power outage. File that one under “losing battle.”

While we’re on the subject of irrational behaviour, it’s worth highlighting the weird cousin of this affliction, the mandatory irrational cottage practice, also known as Because That Is How It Must Be Done Syndrome. These robotic acts are very common in lake country, especially when cottages are opened and closed. Why would anyone apply paste wax to the chrome parts of a gas grill? No one has a clue. But that’s what your grandpa always did, and your mom always did it too. And so now you must continue the tradition and train your children, when the time is right, to wax their own grills. At my family cottage it was decreed that the wrenches used for the water system had to be hung by the pressure tank with loops of baling wire on separate nails. To put these sacred wrenches back in the toolbox meant cottage excommunication. There was probably once a good reason for this arrangement, but no one can remember what it might have been.

I heard a story about a woman who insisted on reminding her family to “cut the top off the turkey” before popping it in the oven. She thought that was just how everyone cooked Thanksgiving dinner. It turns out that the oven at her childhood cottage was tiny, so her mom would lop the top off the bird to make it fit. My advice to you, as a cottage guest, is that you play along with these bizarre behaviours without questioning their logic or practicality. When you see cottagers sprinkling cayenne pepper in the cutlery drawer or draping a crocheted afghan over an ancient television to deter theft, say nothing. Do not question why the red canoe must be stored inside the porch while the green canoe—identical in every respect—must hang under the same structure. Slapping a padlock on the outhouse after every weekend visit might seem odd to you, even ridiculous. But that’s the way it has always been done, so just smile and wave.

Why I hated the cottage as a teenager

I think that, just for fun, cottagers should devise their own strange irrational rules and rituals whose sole aim is to shock and bamboozle cottage guests. Here are a few suggestions. During boat travel, segregate the vessel, with men to port and ladies starboard. Then make them switch half way “because that is the way it must be done.” Draw a circle around each visitor’s mosquito bites with a Sharpie marker, and keep count of them in a book. Leave a single playing card on every guest’s pillow, with no explanation. Insist on playing one Alice Cooper song at breakfast each day. These are just guidelines; your family will surely come up with better ideas. With luck, a few generations down the road, a guest will ask one of your descendants why he has to drink a glass of Fresca and turn around three times. “Because a seagull crapped on your hat, of course. It’s one of our traditions.”

This article was originally published in the Aug/Sept 20 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Featured Video