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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.