We all do odd things around the holidays. Some of us feel the need to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas every year, despite the fact that it’s really a Halloween movie. (Change our minds.) Others shovel all their turkey into their gullets then go trample people in an attempt to save a few bucks on a TV. Still others brave ridiculous temperatures to sing at stranger’s doors in the hopes that they might be given hot chocolate. It’s like adult trick-or-treating. Heck, we put a tattletale Elf on a Shelf and tell our children that he’s watching their every move and that some guy in a very loud suit is going to fly over the house with magic deer and leave them stuff, just 'cause.
There are far odder holiday traditions and lore, though, both modern and ancient. Here are a few holiday fun facts and strange traditions to help you change the subject when your mom starts asking you about your love life over the holidays.
Krampus will eat you up
This tradition from Germany, Austria, and the surrounding areas says that Krampus, a goat-like creature, is going to kidnap you if you haven’t been a good person all year. Sometimes he’s even just the devil. He’s supposed to help us remember that there is good as well as evil in the world. He’ll eat you if you’re bad, which makes him far worse than that Elf snitch.
Smooches under some weirdly symbolic berries
Mistletoe, holly, and ivy are the plants of choice for the holiday season. (Forget poinsettias. They’re so 1980s.) It’s important to remember that these plants are largely popular because they’re not brown and crunchy beneath the snow, but they also have other significance. These were important symbolic plants to the druids. Holly symbolized fertility and eternal life, but you weren’t really supposed to cut it. Oops! Ivy was about connection and friendships. As for mistletoe, well, the white berries symbolized sperm. Yup. One custom said that any woman standing under it could be kissed by any man and it was bad luck for her to refuse. You know what else? It’s poisonous and can kill you. Relatable.
The flaming Yule goat
Since 1966, a Yule goat appears in Sweden in Gävle’s Castle Square. It stands there for Advent, but people really like to light this guy on fire. The 13-meter high goat has been burned down 29 times since then. Flaming Yule Goat is a great band name, no?
Let’s all poop on the Nativity
The caganer is a sculpture of a character with his/her pants down, pooping on a nativity scene. No, this isn’t just a prank. This is a tradition from Catalonia that has migrated all over Europe. Apparently, it’s either a symbol of fertility (which means you’re doing it wrong, we think) or a reminder that everybody poops and we’re all the same. Sure? We’re not the nativity pooping sort, but it sort of makes sense.
Kentucky Fried Chicken is what’s for dinner in Japan
We all eat things that aren’t exactly good for us during the holidays, but in Japan, a modern tradition is to have Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas. The restaurant chain is even helping out with special holiday items on their menu in the country. Hey, it is finger- lickin’ good after all.
The traditional shutting up of children with sugar
The candy cane has been around since the late 1600s, according to legend, and a choirmaster created these sweet treats to keep kids quiet during the church service. The "J" shape was supposed to be either a shepherd’s crook since Jesus was a shepherd or possibly just his initial. This is sort of like today when you give your kid a Go-gurt to keep him quiet while you try to do yoga and dishes at the same time.
Hide your brooms from witches!
You know, it’s always a good idea to lock your car because of car thieves. In fact, you should probably keep all modes of transportation under some sort of security. This includes brooms, the travel mode of choice for witches. In Norway, you are supposed to hide your brooms in case witches show up. Hey, they might steal your presents or poke you with pins or something. Sometimes people even fire guns out the front door, because that will totally scare witches away. Um, guys, these are witches. You know, with magic and stuff. Plus, they probably have Uber Broom or something.
The Christmas pickle (not a euphemism)
It sounds dirty, but this is actually (maybe) a German tradition that involves an ornament. The glass pickle ornament was supposed to be the last one hung on the tree, and the kid who finds it on Christmas Day (it’s green after all, and hard to spot) is supposed to have good luck for the year and win some sort of prize. Now, it’s also possible that this was a corporate scam from F.W. Woolworth who started importing these ornaments in the 1880s. Still, it’s been a long time since then, and it’s just fun to say that you’re got lucky hunting the Christmas pickle. Pickle in a tree? Come on, guys. These are the jokes.
Black Peter (maybe we can forget this one)
In the Netherlands, when Sinterklass shows up on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, he travels with his slave Zwarte Piet. Shudder. If kids don’t act nicely, he’s apparently there to take them back to Spain, where Sinterklass is from. It’s racist, and crappy, and there are a number of parades that still use blackface. These days, most places describe him as a chimney sweep. And we’ll be moving on now.
Holiday rap battle
This Welsh custom of Mari Lwyd is from pagan tradition and is part of the midwinter celebration. According to this tradition, a horse and his group of friends appear at the door of a house or a bar where they sing. There is also a “battle of wits" called “pwnco” where people throw shade at each other in rhyme. Does that make Eight Mile a Christmas movie?
Please don’t burn down your house
Bringing an evergreen tree into the house during the winter solstice celebrations has been happening since long before Christianity hit. It symbolized life in the darkness of the short winter days. In the 17th century, German tradition added candles to that tree to make it all shiny. Cool, but wood and fire don’t mix. Many unintentional blazes started because of the tradition. Maybe we don’t light up the tree with flames? Or the children? In Sweden, St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated right near Christmas with a young girl wearing a crown of candles on her head. Sure, there is significance and all, but it’s also fire and hair. Even if you get the fire out in time, burning hair isn’t exactly a Christmas-y scent.
Little boxes of chocolate and booze
Advent used to be a time of preparation for the holiday and was often marked by fasting. Historians think it dates back to the sixth century C.E. In the 19th century, we started to see calendars with little pictures inside that you opened day by day in December, leading up to Christmas. Of course, the modern take is way cooler. In 1958, the first chocolate-filled calendar was sold, and they became popular in the 1980s. Instead of eating nothing or restricting our diets, we can now get tiny boxes of snacks, perfume samples or teensy bottles of booze. You really can improve on the original
So, what are some weird holiday traditions that you celebrate with your family? (Please tell us it’s not the one with children and candles.) Merry happy everything, everyone!