8 Medieval Christmas Traditions to Liven Up Your Holiday Party

iStock
iStock

Even before the rise of Santa Claus, indoor trees, and 24-hour holiday radio, Christmas was a cause for celebration. The holiday dates back to the 4th century when Pope Julius I declared December 25 to be the date of Christ’s birth. By the end of the 8th century, believers throughout Europe were marking the season with feasts, drinks, and all-around debauchery. Here are some of the more colorful ways Christmas was celebrated in the Middle Ages.

1. WASSAILING

Wassailing was one of the many pagan customs adopted by Christmas revelers. The term wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting waes-hael, which means “be in good health.” As the tradition evolved, the word became synonymous with the hot mulled apple cider drink distributed during Yuletide. Carolers would take their wassail bowl door-to-door, offering a drink and a song in exchange for gifts. While the tradition of caroling at Christmas still persists today, modern singing troupes usually leave the booze at home.

2. SACRIFICING BOARS

People living in the Middle Ages couldn’t pick up a ham from the supermarket for Christmas, so they did the next best thing: They sacrificed a wild boar. If you wanted to impress your guests around the holidays, nothing was more striking than the head of a boar presented with an apple in its mouth on a silver platter. Of course, not every family could afford to serve a Yule boar at their Christmas dinner. For households that were less well off, a pie in the shape of a pig was a popular alternative.

3. KING OF THE BEAN

King cakes with tiny plastic baby dolls baked into them have become a Mardi Gras staple, but the first version of the tradition originated with winter solstice. Cakes containing a single bean were consumed during pagan solstice celebrations, and whoever found the bean in their slice became “king” for a year. Following a year of rule, the temporary king was sacrificed and his blood spilled onto the earth to promote another year of good harvest. When medieval Christians adopted this practice for Christmas they made some adjustments. Whoever found the bean in their cake wasn’t sacrificed, but the tradeoff was that they only got to be king for a day instead of the whole year.

4. JULEBUKKING

Imagine trick-or-treating, only creepier, and you’ll have a good idea of what julebukking was like. As is the case today with Halloween, Scandinavians celebrating Christmas in the Middle Ages would don masks and costumes and go door-to-door looking for treats. But the julebukkers weren’t cute kids: They were usually drunk adults. The practice isn’t as popular as it was in medieval times, but it’s still observed by some Norwegians and even Americans of Scandinavian descent.

5. MYSTERY PLAYS

Mystery plays were a popular form of entertainment for medieval audiences around the winter holidays. Actors, usually clergymen, performed stories from the Bible in either traditional Latin or the common vernacular. No story was off-limits, with the end of days and King Herod's massacre of the innocents playing out on the same stage as the Nativity (though having monks stand in for evil characters like Lucifer did raise some eyebrows).

6. GIVING GIFTS TO RICH PEOPLE

Today, gift-giving is an opportunity to encourage goodwill and generosity around the holidays. In the Middle Ages, it was a way to exploit the poor. Kings and queens throughout Europe required tributes from their subjects on Christmas in the spirit of the three Magi giving gifts to baby Jesus. Soon, lower-ranking noblemen like lords of manors started requesting their own gifts. Even though they were the poorest people in the kingdom, the peasants received nothing in return. According to legend, the 10th century Bohemian duke Wenceslas I (posthumously elevated to king) was among the first rulers to reverse the trend when he spent the holidays handing out food, clothes, and firewood to the less fortunate.

7. LORD OF MISRULE

If you want your holiday party to run more smoothly (or less smoothly, depending on how you look at it), consider appointing a Lord of Misrule. Traditionally, this person was tasked with overseeing the Feast of Fools: an early-winter holiday that flipped the normal social hierarchy upside down. After he was elected, the Lord of Misrule and his court of merrymakers paraded down the street wearing masks and playing instruments. The procession ended at church where the fools interrupted whatever service was going on by bringing their song and dance inside. The number-one rule during the feast was to obey the Lord of Misrule. Fortunately for revelers, most of his commands involved drinking more and having fun.

8. GAMBLING

Gambling was right up there with eating, singing, and drinking at the Christmas parties of the Middle Ages. Both kids and adults took part in the activity, and even if gambling wasn’t a part of their life, people made an exception for the winter holidays. The most popular games involved dice, and players threw them down on any surface they could find, including church altars.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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The 15 Best Netflix Original Series

Tim Robinson stars in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Tim Robinson stars in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Netflix

Netflix is a cultural Rorschach test. In addition to being a revolution of the way we watch movies and television, it's a prestige factory that's helping to bring Oscar-quality entertainment to your home. And it's massive enough to be whatever you need it to be at whatever time you need it.

Seven years after House of Cards changed our perceptions of what streaming content could look like, Netflix has amassed a library of more than 100 original series (and that's only counting the English language stuff). Here are 15 of the best of them.

1. Russian Doll (2019- )

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created the series) is a game developer stuck in a time loop that keeps killing her and depositing her back at her own birthday party. If you roll your eyes at Groundhog Day situations, roll them back, because this incredibly inventive take from Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler is deeply funny, strange, sad, and celebratory all at once. One woman's existential crisis is our binge-worthy content. As a bonus, Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" will be permanently stuck in your brain.

2. Dear White People (2017- )

Based on his (also excellent) 2014 feature, Justin Simien takes us back to prestigious Winchester University, where social justice bard Samantha White (Logan Browning) navigates the growing pains of collegiate romance and friendship while trying to make her classmates recognize the social divisions at their school. Through three seasons (with a fourth coming in 2020), the show has faithfully delivered outrageous humor with its singular blend of satire and soap opera.

3. GLOW (2017- )

Anchored by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and a stellar ensemble cast, GLOW follows a group of women who launch a wrestling show backed by a trust fund kid and a cranky cult horror director (brilliantly played by Marc Maron). It scored laughs from how awkward everything was early on, but the show really sailed when Brie and her cohorts began to fully own the weird, wonderful spandex assault they were creating. Now it's about keeping that show, their group, and their personal lives intact.

4. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (2019- )

Tim Robinson is a Saturday Night Live alum whose sketch show couldn't be further from that mainstay's sensibilities. Where SNL is the McDonald's of comedy, I Think You Should Leave is the hole-in-the-wall place only you and your friends love because it keeps changing the menu with new dishes you can't get anywhere else. It's fair to call the show outlandish, but its comic brilliance stems from the simplicity of its setups and the deranged lengths that the characters go to in order to stick with that premise. Learn nothing else and dive in.

5. BoJack Horseman (2014-2020)

It's the silly cartoon show here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff. Like emo music for grownups, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt's brilliant series focuses on the addiction, self-loathing, and career envy of its titular anti-hero as he attempts to crawl out of the cheesy '80s sitcom stardom of his past and into something more respected. No other show can get away with this many animal puns while exploring the depths of despair that result from trying to fill a bottomless pit in your soul.

6. Master of None (2015- )

Allora! Although it has dipped its toe into experimentation, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's relationship comedy works largely because of the likability of Dev Shah (its main character, played by Ansari). It's buoyant and feels like you're hanging out with friends but, fair warning, it will make you deliriously hungry for pasta.

7. Sex Education (2019- )

Plenty of high school comedies have focused on how awkward sex and romance is for high schoolers, but this fantastic show from Laurie Nunn wanted to raise the stakes by making the young, sexually ambivalent main character's mom a sex therapist. In another ingenious move, they hired Gillian Anderson to play that sex therapist mom, and she delivers all the frank, embarrassing talk you could possibly ask for. So what happens when the insecure son of a sex therapist starts his own sex therapy side hustle to help his high school friends? An excellent, empathetic series that uses its laughs as a release.

8. Sense8 (2015-2018)

Eight strangers living all over the world discover they are emotionally connected to each other. They can feel what others in their cluster are feeling and can communicate with each other despite physical separation. Teaming with comic book and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis have pulled another big-think, sci-fi rabbit out of their hats with this globetrotting thriller that's never met a third-rail issue it didn't want to explore. When they're not running from a mysterious entity bent on their destruction, the fascinatingly diverse crew of connected characters break down everything you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. So maybe we should be talking about them around the dinner table?

9. Orange is the New Black (2013-2019)

One of Netflix's original originals is still one of its best. Jenji Kohan found a perfect follow-up to Weeds with this adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir about a young suburban woman going to a minimum-security prison. The fish-out-of-water comedy, drama, and horror only lasts as long as it takes for the show to blossom into a gorgeous, emotional roller coaster that shines the spotlight on all of its women—from the surly cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) to the sweet/troubled Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba)—to humanize them beyond the personas they adopt to survive. The show is a hilarious self-peeling onion, tears and all.

10. Astronomy Club (2019- )

Within the first two minutes of Astronomy Club, a talking garlic bulb shoots a gun at Dracula and shouts "Tryin' get this money in 2020, baby!" Fortunately, it gets weirder. This sketch show from some Upright Citizens Brigade alums is framed around a fake reality show that wisely lets us get to know these new performers while mocking every Real World descendant and the cast themselves. The comedy ranges from self-aware and absurdist to straightforward and even socially-conscious, and it all blends together smoothly. A one-of-a-kind winner.

11. The Crown (2016- )

Peter Morgan's historical drama has taken advantage of the new format and the lengthy reign of Queen Elizabeth II to craft a charming, devilish exploration of the scandals and triumphs of her adult life. As The Crown has covered decades and decades, it has shifted from Claire Foy playing the young queen (post-WWII) to Olivia Colman playing her through middle age (Winston Churchill's death and Soviet espionage intrigue) and will eventually star Imelda Staunton as the older queen closing out the show in the early 2000s (the years, not her age). It's an anglophile's delight with keen dramatic instincts and a huge list of world events to tackle.

12. Mindhunter (2017- )

Based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series—created by Joe Penhall and executive produced by David Fincher—uncovers our earliest understanding of serial killers and the pioneering research conducted by letting FBI agents interview the country's most notorious murderers about their crimes. The fictionalized team played by Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv battle bureaucracy and old paradigms in order to get their fledgling, vital program to succeed in using the criminal mind to help solve future cases. It's a delicate, gorgeous show exploring our worst impulses, and, chillingly, uses real serial killers' own words to describe their acts.

13. Stranger Things (2016- )

If there were an Audience Choice Award winner for this list, this nostalgia-bomb from the Duffer Brothers would score it. An absolute phenomenon that stuffs Steven Spielberg, The X-Men, and D&D into a blender and pours the results into a Trapper Keeper, the adventures of the psychokinetic Eleven and her band of merry young men are wondrously creepy fun. Perfect PG-13 horror where puberty and a Cthulhu-esque behemoth from a different dimension are equally strong villains.

14. The OA (2016-2019)

After being missing for seven years, a blind woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) resurfaces with the ability to see and calling herself the Original Angel. The series is a stunning blend of sci-fi and fantasy that explores past trauma and near-death experiences with the backdrop of dimension-hopping adventure. It's an epic, intimate story that's truly unlike anything else, and diving into the magnetic first episode comes with the risk of getting addicted to a series that (for now) ends on a cliffhanger.

15. American Vandal (2017-2018)

American Scandal is undoubtedly the best show ever made about misdemeanor penis drawings. What might have been a crass, surface-level parody of our obsession with true crime stories is elevated to the highest of comedic heights due to the unwavering dedication to taking its juvenile crimes seriously. The first season focuses on a high school slacker who swears he's innocent of drawing the aforementioned phalluses on dozens of cars in the school parking lot while the second uncovers the truth about who spiked cafeteria lemonade with a laxative to cause an event known as "The Brownout." Imbued with all the twists and obsessively granular details of Serial, it's a miracle that they filmed any of it with a straight face.