• Imagining History

5 Forgotten and Very Weird Christmas Traditions

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

Some Christmas traditions have stood the test of time. Christmas trees, wreaths and mistletoe have been part of Christmas festivities for thousands of years. In fact, we can track the history of the Christmas tree to as long ago as Ancient Egypt. That's over four thousand years ago!


Not all Christmas traditions have such longevity however; some are so odd, pointless, terrifying or just plain stupid that they have been forever consigned to the dustbin of history. Well, no longer! We've tipped over that dustbin, dumped the contents on the floor, screamed at a hairy rat that just scurried over our feet and have rooted through the smelly, gloop encrusted rubbish to uncover a selection of really weird and almost completely forgotten Christmas traditions. To quote the philosopher, poet and scholar Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, 'You're welcome!'




The Yule Cat

Christmas is normally a time for family, friends and festive goodwill. Nice children receive a lovely gift from Santa, whilst naughty children will only find a lumpy lump of coal underneath the Christmas tree. Things were far harsher for youngsters in Iceland however. They would be punished simply for not being given any new clothes for Christmas. I mean, that's not even their fault, right? So, what would this punishment entail? Being eaten by a giant demonic cat, of course.


Forget to give little Johnny a fresh pair of joggers and he would find himself being gobbled up by Jólakötturinn – the Christmas Cat. This enormous black cat prowled the streets during Christmas eve and would use its superb sense of smell, GPS and maybe even X-Ray vision to tell which children had no new clobber for Christmas. The Yule Cat would then devour the poor unwitting child. Talk about harsh!




Shoe the Mare

Sometimes we can feel a bit too lazy on Christmas day. All that food, all that drink, all that sugar; it can lead to grumpiness, irritation and sleepiness. So why not take a leaf out of the Elizabethan's book and play a round or two of Shoe the Mare?


After Christmas dinner an Elizabethan family would head outside for a spot of sports. One member of the family would take off their shoes and pretend to be an out of control horsie. This frozen footed hero would gallop around like a wild stallion; bucking, leaping and twisting to avoid being caught by the rest of the players. The game would end when the horse was finally wrestled to the ground. Just be careful the pretend horse hasn't overdone it on the Brussel sprouts - no-one wants a back firing horse to ruin the fun!




Wassailing

Wassailing is a fun word. But what on earth does it even mean? Well, the term originates from England during the 17th century. Wassailing involved making a heady brew of hot spicy cider, then going from home to home and offering everyone a sip of your home made booze.


Not only was this considered an important part of being a good neighbour but it had another important function: drinking the cider was believed to chase away bad spirits (like Vodka, my Dad would certainly agree that this is a bad spirit to drink on Christmas Eve if you want to be conscious on Christmas Day). It also helped to wake up the dormant apple trees and make them grow big and strong once Spring arrived.




Mummering

Mummering, surprisingly, didn't involve mummifying your mum like an Ancient Egyptian. Who knew, right? Instead Mummering is a Christmas tradition that originated in Newfoundland before being adopted by denizens of Ireland and the UK. It was a bit like combining Halloween fancy dress with Christmas festivities. Revellers in the early nineteenth century would don disguises and head out incognito to roam around their neighbourhood.


The game was on when they were invited into someone's house. The Mummers would sing, dance, tell jokes or recite poems. Once the impromptu performance was complete the hosts had to try and figure out their guests' identities. They could ask questions and even poke and prod the Mummers. Once they'd figured out who the Mummers were, everyone would have a drink and a chat before the Mummers redonned their disguises and headed off to do it all again at the next home.




Talking Animals

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

If you've ever dreamed of doing a Dr Dolittle and actually be able to talk to the animals then perhaps you should wait up until midnight on Christmas Eve. Numerous European Christmas traditions held the belief that animals would talk upon the stroke of twelve.


Be careful though, you might not like what you hear. One legend tells of a group of animals who were overheard plotting the death of their cruel master. This tale hales from Brittany and was retold in The Christmas Troll and other Yuletide Stories by Clement A. Miles:


“Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, ‘It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head.’
‘Twill be a good deed,’ the cat replied.
The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbor's house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head.”

Burglars, cats and dogs in criminal cahoots? This murderous myth might not be particularly festive but it does serve as a good warning to always remember to feed your pets. Otherwise Fluffy McFluffison and Tiddles will not hesitate in orchestrating your death!



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