17 Famous Christmas Traditions Nobody Does Anymore
The holiday spirit wasn't always so good-natured.
Every holiday season, families around the world trim their trees, sing carols, and hang their stockings in the hopes they’ll find them filled by Christmas morning. However, for every quaint Christmas tradition we follow today, there are just as many that have been cast by the wayside, falling out of favor and remembered by fewer former adherents each year.
So, before you start lamenting your own family’s corny matching Christmas pajamas or photos with Santa, take a moment to be thankful that some of these Christmas traditions aren’t part of your yuletide routine.
Making Real Sugar Plums
“People hear ‘visions of sugar plums dance in their head,’ and wonder ‘what the heck is a sugar plum?” says Brian Earl, host of the “Christmas Past” podcast, blog, and YouTube channel. “Originally, these were caraway seeds or cardamom pods—some kind of spice that was then coated in sugar,” he explains. Modern recipes you may find online involving dried fruits or nuts are actually “not at all authentic, but just something that Alton Brown made up,” he says.
The term plum, meanwhile, comes from its non-fruit-related usage, meaning “desirable,” such as in the term “plum job.” The first usage of sugar plum, as far as anyone knows, says Earl, was in a hand-distributed pamphlet as a euphemism for a bribe.
Telling Scary Ghost Stories
“In the song ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,’ you hear the line ‘there will be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories,’ and may wonder why would there be scary ghost stories on Christmas” says Earl. In addition, you might be curious as to why arguably the most famous Christmas story of all time, “A Christmas Carol,” is a ghost story, he says.
Well, the Victorians—who helped cement many of our modern American ideas of the holiday—loved scary stories and, in fact, “A Christmas Carol” was far from the only Christmas-themed ghost story Dickens wrote, says Earl. More than just warm and fuzzy, it seems, the holiday was once spooky and scary.
Celebrating The 12 Days Of Christmas
Nowadays, the Christmas season is recognized as running from Thanksgiving to Christmas day. But it wasn’t always so: “Before, it was the other way around,” explains Earl. The months leading up to Christmas were considered Advent, which, similar to Lent, was considered a time of restraint.
From Christmas until the Eve of the Epiphany on January 6th was the Christmas season. The biggest celebrations were actually held on that final day, known as “Twelfth Night,” and served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
Celebrating a Non-Human Santa Claus
In 1938, the Coca-Cola company and artist Haddon Sundblom decided Santa would be depicted as a “six-foot, full-grown human grandfather,” says Earl. Due to their massive marketing budget, this version of Santa Claus was spread far and wide, and soon became the standard depiction of Santa throughout the United States and much of Europe. Before that, however, depictions of Santa were “all over the map,” he explains. This included variations of Santa as an elf and gnome—in fact, much of the time, he wasn’t depicted as fully human.
Putting Fruit Cake Under Your Pillow
“If you ate a piece of fruit cake—especially if it was from a wedding—and put [the remainder] under your pillow at night, legend said you’d dream of the person you will marry,” says Earl.
However, this isn’t the only antiquated Christmas tradition involving love. Christmas revelers in the 17th century would also do things like throw food at the wall to see if what stuck spelled the name of a lover, or toss shoes into a tree—if they hung there, the thrower would be married within the year. While placing fruit cake under the pillow has largely gone out of style, English royalty continues to serve the cake at Christmastime gatherings as a nod to the tradition, says Earl.
Performing Social Inversion
Derived from the influence of more raucous Saturnalia celebrations, social inversion was a popular Christmastime practice, says Earl. This would typically involve the election of a “Boy Bishop,” or child, to run the church in lieu of a minister. In the most extreme examples, you’d wind up “with some three-year-old running around leading the whole thing,” he explains.
Wearing costumes used to be a traditional part of the Christmas celebration, says Earl. In one famous instance, a group of 13th century nobles burned to death after the tar they had covered themselves with as adhesive for their “forest savages” costume caught on fire. King Charles, meanwhile, narrowly escaped the incident with his life, and the practice was afterwards banned within his court.
“Meant to commemorate the Feast of The Holy Innocents, one tradition was that you would beat children,” says Earl. Known as Childermass and typically in Western Europe during the fifth through 16th centuries, the beatings were meant to ensure that the kids never lost sight of what happened on that fateful day, when the King of Bethlehem slaughtered all male babies within his city in the hopes of extinguishing Christ.
Appointing a Lord Of Misrule
Under the tradition of the “Lord of Misrule,” “a court jester or clown would become mayor of the city for the Christmas season, suggesting all sorts of funny things that everyone would have to do,” says Earl. Depending upon the village’s ruling structure, this was also sometimes known as “The Abbot Of Unreason.”
Popular in medieval courts, this tradition was meant to provide entertainment throughout the entire Christmas season. Eventually, the raucous celebration was banned in 1541 by Henry VIII and banned once again by Elizabeth I after a brief resurrection by her predecessor.
Foregoing the Tree
“The Christmas tree was a regional German tradition for a long, long time” although, for many centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find people celebrating around a tree outside of Germany, says Earl.
It wasn’t until Prince Albert brought a Christmas tree to England to celebrate in the 1840s—and the story was reported in a local newspaper—that it become a fad. The original tree, meanwhile, was a Tannenbaum, or fir tree.
Remembering Santa’s Gruff Helpers
Christmas wasn’t always as joyful a celebration as it is today, and, for many years, prior to the modern adoption of reindeer and elves in Saint Nick’s mythology, his helpers were a little more sinister. Instead, he would have “these gruff characters that walk around with him and dole out punishment,” says Earl.
These include the menacing Krampus, a horned goat-demon who punishes naughty children and whose presence on Christmas is still recognized in Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia. However, Krampus’ co-conspirators, like Perchta, the demon-faced pagan goddess of spinning, have been largely forgotten in the United States and most European nations.
Celebrating the Feast Of the Donkey
In 12th century France, churches would perform a Christmas ceremony in which they led a donkey on a procession through the center of town and to the local church, where a service was in session. The donkey would remain next to the church’s altar for the duration of the service, and congregants would mimic its bray in a call-and-response with the priest. This tradition, known as the “Feast of the [Donkey],” was accompanied by “raucous, raucous parties that usually got out of hand,” says Earl. The celebration became such a problem that many towns eventually banned it.
Yet another superstitious Christmas tradition that’s fallen out of favor in recent years is first footing, once typically celebrated in England and Scotland, says Earl. First footing was the belief that “the first person to cross the threshold [of a home] on Christmas Eve is considered good luck, especially if it was a dark haired gentleman.”
Holming is one tradition modern-day revelers are likely better off without. Celebrated on St. Stephen’s Day—December 26th—in Wales, people used to “take a bough of holly and thrash someone else with it, until it drew blood,” says Earl. Known as “holming,” this was traditionally performed on the last person to get out of bed.
“Caroling used to look a lot more like trick-or-treating,” says Earl. In fact, in 19th century Europe, it was an occasion for poor folk to request gifts from wealthy landowners. “They’d go from house to house and say ‘Okay, we’re going to sing you a song and you can either invite us in for food or a drink….but if you don’t, you never know what’s going to happen to your yard,’” he explains.
Hiding Things in Cake
Many games and Christmas celebrations were once held on Twelfth Night, says Earl. One of those was a tradition in which “you would bake a cake and hide something in it, like a string bean or a coin,” similar to the modern tradition of finding a bean or figurine in a king cake served on Mardi Gras in the southern United States. Whoever found the item in their slice of cake on Twelfth Night, would “lead the evening’s festivities.”
Celebrating the Supernatural
“There used to be a huge supernatural component to Christmas,” says Earl. For example, “in some parts of Europe it was believed that supernatural activity was at a high on Christmas Eve, sort of the way it is on the Day of the Dead.” In addition to the general belief that supernatural mischief abounded during this time of year, in Germany and Poland, if a child was born on Christmas Eve, they were considered more likely to be a werewolf.
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