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The Origins of Christmas Traditions

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Carolling

What could possibly be disturbing about singing songs of holiday mirth to your neighbours? Well, long before carolling became the innocent activity it is today, it brought its fair share of yuletide terror.

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In 17th Century Britain, Christmas was mostly an excuse to drink and a time to left off steam and gorge. Carollers would approach homes and sing thinly veiled threats to extort the richest townspeople.

Lyrics like “We have come to claim our right… and if you don’t open up your door, we’ll lay you flat upon the floor” made the practice of Carolling into class-conscious trick-or-treating, with the trick being a smack to the face. Sometimes, the poor would hide their real identity, some would wear costumes, including animal masks, or simply cross-dress (this was very popular) so no one would know who they were.

So next time you have to sit through a church group singing at your doorstep, remember how much worse it could be.

Saturnalia Sacrifice

Nowadays we tend to think of Christmas as a Christian tradition – it’s in the name after all. But the holiday has its earliest roots in the Pagan festival Saturnalia. Much like Christmas, Saturnalia was a time of giving. To celebrate the Harvest God Saturn, Romans would eat, drink, give small gifts, swap places with slaves and even roll dice to determine the King of the festive household.

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The Romans had a story that an old prophecy bade the earliest inhabitants of Latium send heads to Hades and phota to Saturn. The ancient Latins interpreted this to mean human sacrifices, but, according to legend, Hercules advised using lights (phos means “light” or “man” according to accent) and not human heads.

Zwarte Piet

Christmas is quite often subject to controversy, but few scandals have inspired such fervent criticism as Zwarte Piet. Also known as ‘Black Pete’ Zwarte Piet is one of Sinterklaas’ black helpers in traditional Dutch folklore. As such white people in the Netherlands will often paint their faces black at festivals.

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Understandably the idea of Santa’s black servant has evoked a lot of backlash in recent years, with growing protest movements calling for the abolition of the practice on the grounds that painting your face that colour is really racist. The UN even stepped in and urged them to stop.

What’s more, the already maligned tradition is sparking further conflict. In November 2017, licensed Zwarte Piet protesters (you now have to be licenced if you want to represent Zwarte Piet and not be arrested) were prevented from reaching a Christmas event by white nationalists, who police said created a ‘life-threatening’ atmosphere.

Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe is one of the biggest holiday clichés out there, but the history and traditions of the plant go way beyond a little peck on the cheek at the Christmas party.

The plant’s associations with romance go all the way back to ancient times, where its vibrant colour and year-round growth were seen as signs of virility, the mistletoe’s gooey white sap was even once known as the ‘semen of the gods’. Pair that with Mistletoe gaining notoriety as a God-killer since it can be poisonous.

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In Norse Mythology, the God Baldur got paranoid that the plants and animals of the world were out to get him, so the other gods had them promise not to harm him. But they forgot about a certain unassuming plant, which gave Loki the chance to murder Baldur.

Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology who transports the souls of the dead across the river Styx, usually requires his passengers to be dead, but he has been known to make exceptions. When Orpheus the Bard came to plead for the resurrection of his dead wife Eurydice, Charon agreed to let him pass for the price of a fresh sprig of mistletoe

Creepy Cards

Christmas cards used to be a lot weirder and darker than they are now. Christmas as we know it didn’t become commonplace until 1848 when Queen Victoria set off a trend in the UK by setting up a Christmas tree at home. And even then, it was mostly celebrated as a cultural holiday rather than a religious one, and part of that celebration was highlighting the struggles of the Victorian working classes.

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As a result, we got cards like this, where the dead robin was supposed to recall the freezing urchins on the streets of Victorian London – not to mention this unsettlingly creepy scene of frog murder.

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You know, I can’t think of many better ways of ruining people’s’ Christmas cheer than sending them drawings of dead animals.

Good King Wenceslas

Everyone knows the classic Christmas Carol Good King Wenceslas, he was the Duke of Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic.

When the duke’s father died in 921 A.D, his family was thrown into a power struggle between his Christian grandmother Ludmilla and his pagan mother Dragomir. When it came to light that Ludmilla was pushing Wenceslas to overthrow his mother, Dragomir had her swiftly executed. But that act of matricide-in-law didn’t exactly go as planned – it led to Wenceslas gaining massive popularity when he eventually took power.

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His championing of Bohemian Christianity made him an immensely popular duke until he was murdered by his brother Boleslaus the Cruel in 935.

Stockings

They’re a quaint Christmas custom, but those furry red socks have a bleak origin story. While there are no historical records, the European legend goes that a widower and his three daughters were pushed to the point of desperation through their poverty. It was so bad that the daughters had no hope of marriage to pull them from destitution since a dowry was needed. That meant that the daughters faced a life of prostitution or death through starvation.

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The Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas heard of that plight, but knowing the father wouldn’t accept handouts, dropped gold down the family’s chimney. Some of it fell into a sock that was hanging by the fire to dry and a tradition was born. So as dark as it could have been, at least it ended well.

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