8 Christmas Traditions From History That Are Actually Creepy As Hell
It's getting closer to Christmas, which means indulging in kissing under mistletoe, putting up stockings for Santa, and threatening small children with coal if they've been bad. Some Christmas traditions can sound super creepy if you've never encountered them before — but in comparison to some of the ways in which people have celebrated the holiday in the past, we're an extremely mild and normal bunch. Who's going to get upset about turkey recipes or who's collecting the wrapping paper when they could be serenading a boar's head or warding away witches?
The "modern" Christmas as we know it is compiled from disparate traditions that, in some cases, stretch back hundreds of years, from the use of Christmas trees to celebrate (a practice beloved by the Vikings) to mistletoe on the doorways (which dates back to "kissing boughs" from the early Middle Ages). In some cases, old traditions still linger or might be making a comeback, but in other, slightly more absurd or disgusting cases they might be best left in the past. I'm pretty sure nobody would welcome you showing up to their house on the day after Christmas with a dead bird while singing and demanding money to bury it — so don't get any ideas.
1. Christmas Ornaments Evolved From "Witch Balls"
The tradition of hanging toys and treats from the Christmas tree is largely German in origin, but the phenomenon of glass-blown spheres and baubles may actually be part of a spooky idea dating back to at least the 17th century across Britain and Ireland: witch balls. These were glass-blown spheres, sometimes layered on the inside with silver, that were believed to ward off evil spirits. The National Museum Of Ireland explains:
"The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore states that their purpose was to “attract and neutralise the evil eye of a passing witch, either by reflecting it back upon her or by puzzling her with the pattern”. The belief at the time was that the bright colours of the ball, after enticing the witch and possibly other, darker, spirits, would trap them inside it and thus protect the home from such negativity. Witch balls also gained popularity among the settlers of New England, who sometimes filled them with holy water for added protection."
Witch balls were originally placed in windows, but the process by which they may have moved from that location to the Christmas tree is mysterious. It's not far-fetched, though, to suppose that people wanted to charm away spirits at a particularly holy and important point in the year, and saw an opportunity in tree decoration. It's another example of ways in which pagan tradition and Christian belief have melded in Christmas's history.
2. The Irish Once Celebrated By Killing Wrens
In Ireland, the Christmas celebrations extend beyond the Dec. 25 — and up until relatively recently, involved bird murder. According to regional Irish tradition, St. Stephen's Day, the 26th, was celebrated by killing a wren, placing it on top of a decorated pole, and taking it from house to house in a procession, singing and demanding money. The precise origins of the idea of wren-slaughter are unclear; it's either a reference to an idea that the saint himself, St. Stephen, was betrayed by a wren, or a legend about wrens exposing hiding Irish villagers during a Viking raid in the 700s.
The tradition, known as "going on the wren" or "Jenny hunting," is recorded all the way up to the 1930s in County Sligo and the Isle of Man, and people who gave pennies to "bury the wren" might also receive a feather from the wren itself to protect against bad luck. While the procession persists in some specific parts of Ireland, wrens themselves remain unmolested.
3. Christmas Eve Involved Burning Yourself On Alcoholic Raisins
This tradition dates at least back to the 1600s in England and is referenced in Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, and Agatha Christie. The idea of playing "snapdragon" or "flapdragon" on Christmas Eve is now lost, but it was a standard part of the season for hundreds of years, even though Health & Safety would now have a total fit about it. The British lexicographer Francis Grose wrote about the rules in 1811:
"Raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins.”
The fun lay in the fact that the flaming raisins were boiling hot and had to be extinguished by putting them in your mouth. And yes, it was particularly played by children. Unsurprisingly, it died out in the 1900s as people started to be less happy about putting out fires and giving children serious burns. The modern British tradition of soaking the Christmas pudding in brandy and setting it alight just before eating, though, may well come from the same origins.
4. Aristocrats Elected A Small Boy To Run Festivities
If you lived in the late medieval period in England and hung around fancy courts of noblemen, law schools or colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, you'd witness some hilarity around Christmas: all of them elected a small boy around Christmas, called the "lord of misrule," to conduct all the celebrations for them. Medieval England held these celebrations, where the social hierarchy was turned on its head, a few times in the year, but the "lord of misrule" at Christmas was one of the cutest versions. They were in charge of all the parties of the court, from elaborate balls to big feasts, and were paid court just as if they were real nobles.
Cathedrals did the same, electing a "boy bishop" every year from the boy choristers who performed all the religious ceremonies of the cathedral from December 28 onwards, including giving sermons. One sermon from a boy bishop involves his wish that all his schoolteachers could be hanged. Awkward.
5. The Christmas Day Feast Was A Flaming Boar's Head
Before turkey and all the trimmings, upper-class celebrations of Christmas in the 1500s in England might involve a particularly threatening centerpiece: a boar's head. We know from a carol dating to the 1520s that it was part of Christmas tradition to bring a boar's head with "garlands gay of rosemary" to the table, often while singing a particular song about its origins and the threat it posed to civilized people while alive. It was the first course, and was meant to be eaten with mustard sauce — though an amazing recipe from a French cookbook in the 1420s involved gilding the boar's head with gold leaf and then putting camphor-dipped candles in its mouth, so that it genuinely looks like it's breathing fire. Christmas ham seems pretty boring in comparison.
One particular college in Oxford continues a tradition of boar's head on Christmas Day that appears to have developed in the 19th century, with an accompanying legend that a scholar, wandering in the woods near the college, came across a wild boar and defeated it by shoving his philosophy book down its throat. A few other colleges and schools in the U.S. have the same tradition, but with much less exciting origins.
6. Russian Tsars Wandered The Streets Giving Alms
In the 16th and 17th centuries in Tsarist Russia, before the Tsars were overthrown by the Russian Revolution, a key part of the Christmas celebration apparently involved the country's leader dressing as a peasant on Christmas Eve, leaving the palace by a secret exit, and visiting prisons and poorhouses to distribute alms. Prisoners could be pardoned by the Tsar on the spot. While the Tsar was meant to provide this service in secret, in reality, poor people knew about it and came from all areas to crowd into Moscow hoping to meet him on his alms-giving walk.
7. "Wassailing" Was Meant To Scare Ghosts Away
We mostly know the word "wassail" from old carols nowadays, but from the medieval period in England onwards it involved sharing apple-spiked drinks like "lambswool" (which involved heating apples until they exploded in boiling alcohol and then adding spices) and wishing each other good cheer. Some people took vast bowls of wassail from house to house in order to spread goodwill. In apple-centric rural areas, though, the tradition of wassailing around the twelve days of Christmas took on more elaborate forms, some of which survive to this day.
To wassail meant going out to visit the orchard in a giant procession on the 12th day of Christmas, singing happy songs to the trees to ensure a good harvest and protect them from evil spirits, shooting and hollering to scare any ghosts away, and sometimes asking small boys to hang toast soaked in cider on the boughs to attract good spirits, in the form of birds. Everybody would then share a wassailing cup full of cider and generally have a really good time.
8. A Horse's Skull Was Taken From House To House With Pretty Accessories
The celebration of Mari Lwyd (Holy Mary), which originated in South Wales and is still celebrated in the region of Glamorgan, is one of the creepiest Christmas traditions in the world. The Mari Lwyd itself is a dead horse dressed up and put on a pole. The Welsh Government describes the celebration thus:
"People made a horse figure from a horse’s skull, with decorative ears and eyes attached. They adorned it with colourful reins, bells, and ribbons and wrapped it with a white sheet that is carried around on a pole. The Mari Lwyd and its party would go door-to-door, singing and challenging the families inside to a battle of rhyming insults in Welsh. At the end of the battle of wits (known as pwnco) the group would be invited into the house for refreshments."
The Mari Lwyd celebration dates back to pre-Christian times and seems to have once been a part of New Year's celebrations, but has now become part of Welsh Christmas folklore. And you thought your mother's old Christmas decorations were the creepiest thing about your festive season.