6 Weird Holiday Traditions From History We Shouldn't Bring Back

by JR Thorpe

The holiday season is full of traditions, from family beliefs — everybody's grandmother has an opinion about the right way to do Christmas dinner — to ideas that are far more widespread. The structure of holiday traditions from history have many different origins; there's argument about why we kiss under mistletoe, for instance, as it could be to do with Norse myth or the folklore that what happens under the mistletoe is invisible to others (it isn't). While the modern-day holidays might seem commercialized and cynical, there are some traditions that will make you glad that you're living in the 21st century and not, uh, being kicked out of the house on Christmas Day for good luck.

The holiday period, from the weeks before Christmas past the New Year, has carried currents of luck and portent in many different societies for hundreds of years. Traditions that we still do today can have ancient origins, or have been made up in the 19th century; it's often quite difficult to tell. However, the centuries of folklore around these symbolic times of year, which in the Northern hemisphere fall in the darkest parts of winter, have led to some, well, intriguing traditions. When people talk about "old-fashioned holidays," I'm pretty sure this isn't what they mean.


Christmas Puddings As A Way For "Old Maids" To Marry

While Christmas puddings are now widely available in supermarkets, you might be from a family that insists on making their own, complete with alcohol-soaked fruit. Some people even do an English tradition that dates from the 1500s, when "Stir-Up Sunday" was the date in the church calendar for making the pudding — and everybody in the house got a chance to stir it. Pretty adorable — but there's another element to the stirring that we can really do without.

Superstition expert Max Cryer writes that unmarried women were highly encouraged to stir the pudding to get themselves hitched: "If she does not stir a pudding at all she will not be wearing a bridal veil for at least another year."

And that wasn't the end of it; up until at least the 1930s, both a "bachelor's button" and a "spinster's thimble" were baked into Christmas puddings in England, and whoever got them would remain unmarried. Come on, really?!


Banning Women From The Door At Holidays

M.A. Radford's Encyclopedia of Superstitions is a treasure trove of bonkers superstitions from rural areas of England dating back centuries, and some of them are very sweet: women were told to walk backwards three times around a pear tree, or put a special cake in the fire, to see "images" of their future husbands.

But one superstition isn't so charming. According to Radford, in the Herefordshire area of England, "no woman was allowed to enter a house on Christmas Day." That even applied to servants who were in the houses of their employers on Christmas Eve; they had to sleep in the kitchen there overnight, and were only allowed to go visit their families and then re-enter their employer's house if they did that. Otherwise, no women across the threshold for 24 hours. A reason why is not given.


Bad Luck If You BurnedThe Food

The 1903 edition of an encyclopedia of superstitions from around the world contains a huge quantity purported to involve the holidays. Despite ostensibly being a Christian holiday, Christmas retained pagan and folkloric beliefs about luck and fortune in many European countries up until the 20th century, and virtually everything was covered, from the position of shoes in the hallway on Christmas day to what kind of grain was used in bread.

The encyclopedia mentions a few, though, which we should be happy no longer exist. According to it, "No person who squints should be allowed in the house on Christmas eve, nor any barefooted person in the hall." And there's a more brutal one: "If the good wife burns the cakes on Christmas, she will die in the year." Let's not bring that one back, OK?


Not Allowing Anything Out Of The House On New Year's Day

This is a very old one that we know about from an 1872 book by historian Charles Hardwick, who pointed out that it hasn't exactly always gone to plan. According to Hardwick, in Lancashire in England there was a strict superstition: "Take out, then take in/Bad luck will begin;/Take in, then take out,/Good luck comes about." Nobody was allowed to dispose of anything from their houses on New Year's Day without taking something else in first.

Sounds harmless enough, but Hardwick explained that it occasionally went wrong. "A publican, named Tilley, refused to serve a glass of whisky on credit during the New Year's festivities, on the score that it was unlucky to do so," he wrote. He offered to give the gentleman the whisky as a gift instead. Unfortunately the man wasn't pleased: "The refusal so exasperated the thirsty customer that he stabbed the landlord in the abdomen."


Washing In Freezing Water At Midnight

The "firsts" of the New Year have superstitious power, and Steve Roud writes in The English Year that up until the 19th century in Herefordshire, it was well water that had supernatural qualities. According to a 1912 text, servants would wait up all night in order to compete to be the first to get the "Cream o' the well, the first water drawn from the well in the year, which was thought to be beautifying and lucky." The servant who managed to get it to the mistress of the house first got a present, and the woman herself would bathe in it at midnight. No, thank you.


Women Were Bad Luck New Year's Day

The practice of "first-footing," or being the first person across a threshold in the New Year, has often been of importance across Europe and the UK, and remains popular in Scotland. Preferably, the first person across the threshold should bring a lot of luck and fortune for the year ahead.

Women, however, weren't always seen as a good omen. The 1903 encyclopedia remarks that "If your first caller on New Year's Day is a male, you will have good luck and many friends; if a female, bad luck and few friends." Gee, thanks.