The Downright Weird History of Holiday Traditions

Winter feels like a time for traditions, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s the cold and the dark, but it seems so natural during this season to hunker down with loved ones and do something you’ve always done (and if a fireplace and hot cocoa is involved, all the better). You’ve probably got your own traditions, whatever holidays you celebrate, and while we don’t know what they are (although we’d love to know!), we’re going to venture two guesses about them. First of all, we’re guessing at least some of them have a high comfort factor, and might even be downright cozy and sweet. Second, your traditions have probably been a part of your life for so long that you don’t even remember how they started. 

The holiday traditions that most of us are familiar with are no different: they’ve just always been a part of a lot of our lives, so much so that most of us don’t know the real history or origin behind them. But what might be slightly different about them (or maybe not!), is that many of them have some pretty weird roots! So let’s see what you really know about these holiday traditions.

Christmas

There are plenty of people in the U.S. who don’t celebrate Christmas, and it’s definitely not the only game in town when it comes to winter holidays, but it is a biggie, and most of us are very familiar with the traditions surrounding it. So whether you celebrate it or not, you might find yourself surprised, intrigued, and maybe just a little freaked out to find out the following about the Christmas traditions that are everywhere at this time of year.

4 people dressed in red sweatshirts with santa hats holding green books
Carolers used to rampage through the town and demanded that people give them their finest food and drink.

Caroling

So how do you feel about random groups of people coming to your door to belt out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”? Kinda nice, right? It’s all in the spirit of the season, so why not? You might sit on your stoop to enjoy their songs and then maybe even offer them a cup of hot chocolate. Well, how would you feel if carolers, or “wassailers,” as they were known in the 17th century, came rampaging through your town and demanded that you give them your finest food and drink? They might have been singing things at you like, “We’ve come here to claim our right/And if you don’t open up your door/We’ll lay it flat upon the floor,” and even threatening you with violence and rape if you didn’t comply, so you’d probably agree with one minister in the early 1700s who complained that caroling drove people to “Rioting, Chambering [fornication], and Wantonness.” And you’d probably hide your hot chocolate.

The Nutcracker

File this one under a super creepy story turned into a beautiful ballet that has become synonymous with Christmas time. In the original 1816 story by German author E.T.A. Hoffman, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” a 7-year-old girl named Marie slices her arm open after being startled by a vision of her nutcracker coming to life. While she recovers, her godfather tells her the tale of a man cursed by a wicked queen to be an ugly nutcracker, to which Marie responds by declaring she would love him no matter what he looked like. She’s put to the test: she’s whisked off to the doll kingdom to marry him – which she does within a year of her meeting him, making her 8 at the time of her wedding. Um, no.

Mistletoe

There are multiple stories surrounding this kiss-inducing plant, including that Druids believed it restored fertility, or that a Norse god was killed by the plant and his mother, the goddess of love, vowed to kiss anyone who stood under it after he was miraculously brought back to life for her. But probably the most interesting tidbit about mistletoe is that, well after the days of the Druids, the plant was used in ceremonies to pardon criminals. They would bring a sprig to York Minster Cathedral in England and the priest would declare, “public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom of all sorts of inferior and wicked people at the minster gates, and the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of heaven.” Geez, it was only a kiss.

Stockingsthree different stockings hung up on a fireplace.

The legend that surrounds hanging stockings at Christmas is actually a pretty sweet one. According to Donald E. Dossey’s book “Holiday Folklore, Phobias, and Fun,” the tradition is tied to a story about 4th-century bishop St. Nicholas (sound familiar?) who overheard an elderly man fretting that he would not have enough money to supply his three daughters with a dowry, meaning they would probably be forced into prostitution to support themselves. The legend goes that St. Nicholas was so moved by this that he crept into the family’s home at night and filled their stockings, which had been hung by the fireplace to dry, with bags of gold. And of course, everyone lived happily ever after. 

Christmas Parties

The days of getting drunk and photocopying choice parts of your body at office Christmas parties feel pretty much over – what do you think? But, to be honest, those crazy parties are probably pretty true to the real origins of Christmas parties – well, certain ones at least. After all, Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ jumped around in the calendar before December 25 was settled on by Pope Julius I more than 300 years after the death of Jesus. And what was important about that date? It just happened to also be (roughly) the date of Saturnalia, a Roman festival of the winter solstice, that included drinking and debauchery, as well as role reversal between slaves and masters, and allowing criminals to run rampant. Ah, the good old days.

And, finally we’d like to point out that the tradition of hating and belittling fruitcake is not a tale as old as time. In fact, the Christmas “treat” that everyone loves to hate was even banned for a short period of time in 18th-century Europe for being “sinfully rich.” We will also say, though, that the ancient Egyptians placed a version of fruitcake in tombs when relatives died, so…We’ll leave that one without comment.

Hanukkah

The Controversy Over Its Importance

The first thing to unpack about this winter holiday is that it actually was not traditionally a super important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It seems that Hanukkah surged in popularity as a response to Christmas, and there are no restrictions on working, going to school, or other activities during the holiday. 

4 jelly donuts in a pan
The push of jelly donuts was to encourage the creation of more jobs for Jewish workers.

Jelly Donuts

While many families equate potato latkes with celebrating Hanukkah, others eat jelly donuts. Both are fried in oil, since eating fried food is considered a symbol of the oil used to light the menorah, but Hanukkah donuts seem to have a more recent political history: they were pushed in the 1920s by Israeli labor group Histradut. Why? Well, as food history expert Emelyn Rude points out, the end of the High Holy Day season in autumn “often brought a lull in work in Jewish quarters. By pushing the sufganiyot [jelly donuts] as a symbol of the Festival of Lights, as opposed to the DIY-friendly latke, the Histradut could encourage the creation of more jobs for Jewish workers.”

Dairy Products

While loading your Hanukkah table with dairy products is not as common a tradition, it does have some pretty intense (if maybe historically inaccurate) roots. According to food historian Gil Marks, serving things like cheese blintzes is probably a reflection of a misinterpretation of the book of Judith: “The text, composed around 115 BCE, tells of [how] Judith, a young widow from a town besieged by the Babylonians, infiltrated the enemy camp, fed the commanding general salty cheese to induce thirst, plied him with wine to slack his thirst until the general fell into a drunken stupor, then cut off his head with his own sword. In response to the loss of their leader, the enemy army panicked and fled.”

Dreidels

Legend has it that the dreidel was a way for ancient Jews to study the Torah in peace, since it allowed them to pretend that they were simply doing some sinful gambling. But it seems that that might just be a story, and, although the exact origins of this spinning top game are unknown, it’s thought to have derived from a 16th-century game played in Ireland that made its way to Germany.

New Years 

And what about some of the iconic images and ideas surrounding the turning of the year? How about these:

Dropping the Ball

There’s probably nothing more iconic on New Year’s Eve these days than watching a giant ball drop to mark the coming of the new year, but did you know that that tradition might have started with sailors? In the old days, sailors used “time balls” to set their own timepieces while at sea. They would set these chronometers by using a spyglass to scan the harbor, looking for balls that were dropped into the water at certain times, according to PBS. It’s no surprise, then, that the first New Years ball was dropped in the seaside town of Portsmouth, England in 1829.

Making Sparks Fly, In More Ways Than Onefireworks

Why do we rush to find someone to smooch at midnight, and why do we set off a barrage of fireworks? It all comes down to protection: puckering up was thought to bring luck in the ancient world, and help ward off the evil spirits that could run amok during the intensely vulnerable time when we transitioned from the warm seasons to the cold. Similarly, the light and noise of fireworks was also meant to scare away any creepies lurking in the winter night. 

Resolutions

Are you going to make resolutions this New Years? Meh, no pressure – we’re all about having a stress-free start to the year. But things were not so easy-going in Ancient Babylonia, where it is believed that our modern idea of making resolutions might have its origins. During their 12-day -long New Year festival, called Akitu, citizens made spoken resolutions, and they didn’t do it because they wanted to lose a few pounds. They were required to make an oath to the sitting (or new) king, since these oaths were considered essential to keep the kingdom in the gods’ favor.

Whatever traditions you’re going to celebrate this year, and whatever your traditions, we wish you a season full of warmth, comfort, and joy – and definitely lacking in carolers breaking down your door. Let us know what you’re looking forward to this season, and what you were surprised about in the above! Happy winter!

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