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Cercis: No Seasons nor Reasons Required

While there are established times of the year that get officially branded as “gift-giving seasons,” or those special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, and showers) that get special Hallmark attention, I grew up with a different tradition of gift-giving: the treasured tradition of cercis. My mother hails from the low country of South Carolina, but she attended college in the state’s midlands in Columbia before moving to upstate, where she raised my sister and me. And somewhere between the Atlantic and the Appalachians, she encountered the cerci tradition (also spelled circe, circi, sercy, searcy, surcy, surcee, and infinite other variations, but consistently pronounced sur-see) and, lucky for me, she passed this custom along to her daughters.

You may be wondering where such a word originates, as it has a very different twang from other Southern-ese, like “fixin’ to” and “y’all.” It’s something you might associate more with a white-gloved debutante than say someone with a bottom lip full of smokeless (not that the two are mutually exclusive). As for the word’s origins, there are a lot of rumors and speculation– another area the South excels at, some might say (bless their hearts). There is a private all-girls college in Columbia, SC that has a long history with the tradition, but it doesn’t seem they actually created the cerci phenomenon. Some linguists, namely Joan Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (aka DARE), make a connection to the Scottish word “sussie” (to care, to take trouble, to bother oneself), which in turn is derived from the French word “souci” (care, trouble). Some connect the word to the Irish that settled in the South. Personally, I do sense something French-like about the word, but seeing as three semesters of Latin does not a linguist make, I’ll leave that mystery to the word detectives.

In order for a gift to qualify as a cerci, it must, first of all, be a surprise. Secondly, it must be something small and somewhat inexpensive, but thoughtful. Generally cercis are given as a thank you for something the recipient helped you with or as a “just because” present– something you see randomly that makes you think of someone so strongly and instantly that you are magnetically drawn to connect that person to that object via the magic of the cerci without waiting for a birthday or hallmark holiday. Examples of cercis I have received include mittens that display the words “over here” when you wave, a box of dark chocolate caramels (always a solid choice), and a small hand-carved wooden spoon from India (the handle is a bird head, so it looks like I have a feathered friend nesting in my tea cup, which always makes me smile). Generally when you thank the giver, the response is “oh, no thanks needed- it’s just a little cerci!”

Non-southerners are often puzzled when they encounter this tradition, but many quickly adopt it once the cultural shock wears off. The south isn’t the only place you will find a culture-specific tradition in regards to gift-giving. In Zanzibar, there are many different gifting traditions intertwined in Swahili culture, and the term zawadi or gifty is used similarly to cerci. In the Netherlands, surpriseavond is a Sinterklaas (Christmas) party held on the evening of December 5th, prior to which names are drawn out of a hat. People must either make a homemade present or buy an inexpensive present called a surprise (spelled like the English surprise, but pronounced ‘sur-pree-zuh’) for the person they drew. Usually the sur-preee-zuhs are connected to a favorite hobby or treat and are wrapped up very dramatically and generally humorously. However, the most treasured part of the surpriseavond is the original poem (Sinterklaasgedicht) that must accompany each gift, which is read out loud at the party, often as a funny riddle about what’s inside the ridiculous packaging.

What special giving traditions do you practice and how did you come by them?

p.s. Looking for a cerci for someone in your life? Check out our special “Gifts for Celebrating” section!