Our 40 Favorite Stories of 2018

iStock.com/ViewApart
iStock.com/ViewApart

Like parents with their children, Mental Floss's editors and writers don't want to have to choose a “favorite” story during any given year. But also like parents with their children, we do tend to play favorites (sorry, kids—it’s true for your parents, too). Whether it’s a piece we wrote, a story we edited, or just something we read on the site and loved, our team agreed to share some of their favorite stories of the year (listed in chronological order). Just in case you missed them.

How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Lucas Reilly is probably best known for his impeccably-researched long form stories, but he’s just as adept at offering a quick glimpse of a situation few have stopped to ponder: How does one tidy up the rooms of an ice hotel in Sweden? (Hint: Maids carry ice picks instead of feather dusters.) I like this story because it presents a totally alien situation, piques the reader’s curiosity, and then summarizes the logistics involved. Also: Having “manager of ice hotel” in your list of contacts is a very Mental Floss thing to do. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

I just loved the details of how Hollywood food stylists accomplish their goals: mashed potatoes as ice cream (it doesn't melt under hot lights)! Ground-up Oreos to stand in for Pakistani dirt! Prosciutto slices when you need to mimic slivers of a human arm for Hannibal! It's all here! —Bess Lovejoy, Staff Editor

The Enigma of Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins

Some of the coffins discovered in 1836
National Museums Scotland

I've long been fascinated by the 17 miniature coffins a group of rabbit-hunting boys found in Edinburgh in 1836. Were they connected to some sort of spellwork, like a Scottish version of voodoo dolls? Or an eerie homage to the Burke and Hare murders? I love how Allison Meier laid out the various bizarre theories and delved into the the scholarly analysis of what must be some of the stranger museum artifacts on display in the world. —BL

Bizarre as Hell: The Disappearance of the Yuba County Five

The disappearance of the Yuba County 5 was a tragedy for their families. But when I found mention of it deep in a Reddit thread over the holiday break of 2017, I knew we had to cover it. Young men driven into the forest for no apparent reason, only to meet their icy doom? It seemed like something out of Twin Peaks, or, as some have said, like an American Dyatlov Pass incident (a reference to the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet students in 1959 while camping). And even though I knew the whole story, Jake Rossen still spooked me retelling it. The sense of atmosphere and mystery he created here is, to me, far darker and more interesting than the average blood-soaked murder—perhaps because, when left to its own imaginings, the mind often creates something much worse than the truth. —BL

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Several years ago, before we had ever worked together, Jake Rossen wrote a story for Mental Floss about the awesomely terrible little-kid-is-a-robot sitcom Small Wonder. Jake and I had never spoken, emailed, or in any other way communicated (we were both freelancers at the time), but I was determined to see him make some of my bizarre, half-formed story ideas come to life. When we both came aboard as staffers, I set about putting my devious plan into motion. And it worked (this is the part where Jake would add that he got the raw end of that deal). In addition to sharing a rather warped sense of humor and desperate love of Cobra Kai (seriously—go watch it), Jake has a knack for turning my random emails—“Stop the Insanity!” “John Wayne Bobbitt”—into fully fleshed out stories (no pun intended, John) that go beyond the surface or just some kitschy “hey, remember this?” kind of thing. His piece on The Day After—which scared the sh** out of me as a kid, and 100 million other people—is the perfect example of this. I’m still not sure why my parents let me and my siblings watch it. But I’m glad that Jake suggested a deep dive into how it came to be. —Jennifer M. Wood, Senior Editor

How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death

The back of a woman gazing at Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Mental Floss

Can you fangirl over a skeleton? Well, I did this year. Jeremy Bentham is my favorite preserved dead philosopher, and not only because he's the only preserved dead philosopher in the world—or at least, the only one who left such specific instructions. For me, the joy of this story was to talk to the curators involved in displaying Bentham's auto-icon (as his articulated, stuffed skeleton topped with wax head is known) on both sides of the Atlantic. I could hear Luke Syson at The Met Breuer positively beaming delight down through the phone wires, and thought about how weird—but beautiful—it is that this corpse brings so much joy to people, including me. Part of that is because Bentham himself was so iconoclastic, and his attempt to make a political, or at least ethical, statement with his own body feels very modern. Not to mention wonderfully eccentric. —BL

5 Ways to Define a Sandwich, According to the Law

Michele Debczak always manages to answer questions I didn’t even know I had. Can I get paid to eat Nutella? What does Uranus smell like? Why do tumbleweeds tumble? But I’m especially thankful for this jewel: This was a huge debate in the Mental Floss office back in 2014, and I’m glad somebody finally put it to bed. —Lucas Reilly, Features Writer

The Typo That Helped End World War II

In our line of work, typos are a very, very bad thing. So when a typo mistakenly landed a cryptogamist (a person who studies algae) instead of a cryptogramist (a codebreaker) a job at Bletchley Park in 1939, it seemed like one big embarrassing mistake. But when Allied forces managed to salvage a bunch of critical—albeit waterlogged—documents from some German U-boats they had torpedoed, it turned out that having a cryptogamist on hand was just the thing they needed to salvage the documents. Once dried, the Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, which likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process. And all because of a seemingly embarrassing typo! —JMW

The Canadian Village Where Sasquatches Are Said to Roam

British columbia coastline
iStock

As a child of British Columbia, sasquatches are close to my heart. In this piece, I particularly admired the primacy of indigenous knowledge: A lesser writer could easily paint the whole thing as "weird," or dismiss it due to lack of evidence, but Kat explores the role of the sasquatch as a member of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais community. The result is a much fuller account of what this creature means for the people of the Pacific Northwest than you usually see. She also paints a rich picture of the land where she reported—something that's all too rare in our mostly desk-bound days. —BL

25 Foreign Words with Hilarious Literal Meanings

I studied Vietnamese for about a year while living in Hanoi, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything during the animal lesson because I couldn’t get past the hilarious literal translations. For example, a crocodile is literally called an “ugly fish” and a skunk is a “stink fox," which is actually a pretty perfect naming system, in my opinion. This inspired me to research some of the amusing literal translations in other languages, and I wasn’t disappointed. My personal favorite is "paper vampire" for stapler in Afrikaans. —Emily Petsko, Staff Writer

The Wild, Wild Story of the 'Sex Guru' at the Center of Wild Wild Country

When Netflix dropped the docuseries Wild Wild Country in March, I was instantly hooked. A true crime series with a sex cult at the center? Sign me up! Though I binge-watched all six hours in one sitting, Emily Petsko managed to reveal even more about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the man at the center of the documentary, offering an even deeper understanding about who he was and why he was compelled to do the things he did. If you haven’t seen the series or read the story, I won’t give too much away. But I will say that pairing a binge-watch with this article is one great way to spend a weekend. —JMW

9 The Shining References Buried in Pixar Films

Woody from 'Toy Story' on a background from 'The Shining'
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Woody Image: iStock. Background: IFC Midnight

One of the things people seem to love about Pixar films is how they speak to adults as much as they do kids. One possible reason to explain this could be Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich’s love of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As such, Unkrich—who has directed and/or co-directed a handful of films for the animation company, including Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, and Coco—has hidden subtle nods to the iconic Stephen King adaptation (which, ironically, King doesn't like) into the Pixar world. Rebecca Pahle had some fun sharing some of them here. —JMW

Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park

It’s hard to believe that a place like Action Park actually existed, and it’s even harder to believe that it remained open for nearly two decades. I’m simultaneously relieved and a little disappointed that I never got to experience the “Cannonball Loop.” —EP

8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

I’ve been trying to work Hellhörig into conversation ever since I read this piece, which—in addition to that delightfully German word—is full of other terms you’ll want to start using immediately. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

20 Character Actors Who Make Everything They’re in Better

When Scott Beggs pitched me this idea, I had just one question: Will Walton Goggins be included? He swore he was already at the top of the list, and I was sold. But I could have very well asked the same question about every actor he included here, each of whom really does elevate every project they’re in—even if it’s already great to begin with. Side note: It hardly seems coincidental that a handful of the actors in here have appeared in the television version of Fargo (or, in the case of Peter Stormare, the original film). Yes, that’s a total plug for Fargo. No, I have no affiliation with the series beyond loving it and always being amazed by the casts they manage to assemble. —JMW

The Quest to Break America's Most Mysterious Code—and Find $60 Million in Treasure

Buried treasure on top of a cipher and the declaration of independence.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

A lot has been written about Beale’s treasure, and people love debating whether it’s real or not. But what’s most real to me is that people can get so wrapped up in solving this mystery that they become utterly consumed by it. This isn’t so much a story about treasure; it’s a story about the people who hunt it—and how their passion transforms their lives, for better and worse. (Treasure hunters, by the way, are incredibly fun people to interview!) —LR

The Best Way to Wipe Your Butt, According to Experts

Wiping your butt seems like something you shouldn’t be able to mess up, but here’s a dirty little secret: You totally can. I love that we spoke to an expert who walked us through how it's done properly (wet wipes are a no-no!) and introduced us to the frankly horrifying Polished Anus Syndrome. —EM

12 Facts About Japanese Internment in the United States

While we tend to steer clear of modern-day politics in our everyday coverage, it’s always interesting to see how so many of our historical stories have a resonance in the world today. Scott Beggs’s excellent story about FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the removal of Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese heritage from their homes to be imprisoned in internment camps throughout the country, is a perfect example of that. And a great read—particularly when you consider that it happened in 1942, which is really not that long ago. —JMW

The 1925 Cave Rescue that Captivated the Nation

lantern in cave
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

I loved the sense of tension and suspense that Lucas wrought from a simple question: Will the man trapped in the cave survive? He brought the long hours of stillness and tedium within the pitch-black cave to life, and gave readers a thread—like the weak flame of Collins's lamp—on which they could cling to hope. The contrast between those scenes and the crass, party-like atmosphere outside the cave captured a time in American history that held a mirror to today's sensationalizing of disasters. —Kat Long, Staff Editor

10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories

Though I rarely buy into fan theories, I love reading about them. And Kristin Hunt has really become our go-to writer for digging up some truly bizarre ones on everything from Mary Poppins to The Sopranos. As a rabid Sesame Street fan (yes, even as an adult—and I’ve got the socks to prove it), the idea that Count von Count occasionally gives into his vampiric need for human blood or that Oscar the Grouch’s trash can is actually a TARDIS gave me a lot to think, and laugh, about. (Yes, I’m also a Doctor Who nerd.) —JMW

Amazing Automata and Mechanical Musical Instruments

Librarians and archivists are my rock stars, so the whole video series we did at little-known local museums this year had me fangirling. But the highlight may have been in June, when we went to the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, and the conservator, Jere Ryder, opened up the deep storage. While the automata and musical instruments upstairs in the museum are sublime (think ornate and expensive), these not-quite-ready for primetime players, including a taxidermy cat playing a harp and meowing "kittens" playing cards, were so incredibly awkward and sweet I think I squealed. The place is definitely worth a trip to New Jersey, even if a child on a previous visit did scream "This is going to give me nightmares!" —BL

15 Essential Midnight Movies Every Film Fan Needs to See

Though movie theaters had a very good year in 2018, their so-called “comeback” was due in large part to major blockbusters like Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Which makes me long for the days when even the smallest towns seemed to have a repertory theater, where midnight screenings of movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, and The Warriors were a standard option on a Saturday night. Matthew Jackson wrote about some of the best of them here, and what made them perfect for late-night moviegoers. —JMW

The Tiny "Spite Triangle" That Marks a Century-Old Grudge Against New York City

A tiled triangle in the sidewalk that reads 'Property of the Hess estate which has never been dedicated for public purpose.'
Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Over the years we’ve written about spite houses and spite fences, but Shaunacy Ferro’s exploration of a teeny tiny mosaic tile that sits in the ground in New York City’s West Village might be the ultimate middle finger—if only because it largely goes unnoticed, and will hopefully remain there forever. —JMW

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

I love covering professions many people don't think much about, like the companies brought in to clean up after violent deaths. Deanna Cioppa focused both on the memorable details—like the training set-ups made out of sheet rock and pig's blood—and the emotional heart of the story, which I think is the immense satisfaction people get from doing this job. As one interviewee put it, "It's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives." —BL

When Missing Kids Could Be Found on Milk Cartons

Any kid who ever ate a bowl of cereal in the 1980s probably remembers staring at the back of the milk carton and being confronted with the haunting faces of “missing” children. To a child, it was slightly alarming—and it’s a tactic that has long confounded me, mostly because I wondered just how effective it really was. The answer, it turns out, is: not very. But the genesis of the concept and how milk cartons came to be the vessel of choice for spreading the word about missing children makes for a wonderful read. —JMW

The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

Any story about a mysterious artifact that confounds experts instantly has my attention. This piece doesn't give a definitive explanation for dodecahedrons—the intricate, 12-sided objects that have been dug up across northern Europe—but it does offer some plausible theories that don't involve extraterrestrials. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Portrait of Donner Party member Lewis Keseberg
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most people are probably familiar with the horrific tale of the Donner Party, but this part of the story—in which Lewis Keseberg was accused of not just cannibalism, but of murder—I was not familiar with. Michele Debczak does a great job telling a story that's fascinating and tragic in equal measure, and a must read for those who love history. —EM

The Most Influential Parasite in History

Erin McCarthy talked to a boatload of malaria experts and pieced together this great feature detailing just how acutely malaria has changed the course of world history—it’s changed human evolution, it’s changed America’s government, and it’s now helping drive scientific research in directions that are beyond our wildest imaginations. This thoroughly reported piece is enlightening. —LR

The Time Congress Banned the Braille Edition of Playboy

Sometimes I just want to open up Jake Rossen’s brain so I can see where he gets all of his ideas. He always finds the most unusual and unbelievable stories to tell! Usually, they sound like the set-up to a weird joke. Take this one: "Did you hear about the time a politician who crusaded against an edition for Playboy made for blind people?" It sounds too wacky to be true. But, alas, here it is. —LR

12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

A television with a person in a hazmat suit pulling yellow tape that reads "police line do not cross."
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Who among us hasn’t paused our binge-watch of Making a Murderer to wonder whether the current deluge of true crime content is healthy? Erin McCarthy’s breakdown of the psychology behind our addiction to morbid subject matter is both reassuring and informative. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in a criminal narrative. There’s even a case for an evolutionary benefit to hearing these disturbing tales. —JR

The 19th Century "Gang of Ghosts" That Terrorized Chicago's North Side

I love a good ghost story, and this one by Shaunacy Ferro—featuring a Chicago ghost gang, a man of the cloth, a lawsuit, and a hilariously angry New York newspaper that declared "Chicago is not old enough to have ghosts"—is a good one. —EM

The Bloody History of Fangoria

In many ways, I owe my career to Fangoria. The legendary horror movie magazine—which recently made a comeback—was a must-read for any serious horror movie fan back in the 1980s and 1990s. And while its covers made it clear that blood and guts were on the menu, its dedication to going behind the scenes of the movies they covered—to speak not just with the actors and directors, but the special effects and makeup teams and the many other artists who were essential in bringing these films to life—instilled in its readers a serious appreciation for the moviemaking process as a whole (which too few magazines do today). The magazine has gone through a few different iterations, and Jake Rossen took the time to speak with several of the people who were there and make it all happen. Also: Props to my brother for allowing me to dig into his full collection of mint-condition copies for a few photo ops. —JMW

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted House Actors

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, so it was fun to learn about what’s actually happening behind the scenes at a haunted house. I have newfound respect for these actors, who work extremely hard and wear themselves out scaring the crap out of their patrons (quite literally, as you’ll see in fact #8). —EP

The Most Dangerous Job: The Murder of America's First Bird Warden

Birds in the Everglades
iStock.com/NicolasMcComber

Not everyone knows this, but Lucas Reilly is an alchemist: You can give him a one-page scan of a book, or an old newspaper article, and he'll turn it into gold. This beautifully written story is ostensibly about a murder of a man in the Everglades, but what you feel most deeply (at least I did) is the murder of all the birds the man was sent to protect. All of Lucas's stories have these layers, which are always revealed at just the right moment. This one is also a sadly timely story given the rollback in protections for migratory birds, not to mention other species, and a reminder that humans are the most dangerous animal of all. —BL

Alone in the Dark: An Oral History of MTV's Fear

As a teen, there were few things I found scarier than MTV’s Fear—so I naturally loved this oral history about how the show came together (and, frankly, ended way before it should have). Some of the stories included in it are as scary as the show itself! —EM

Does a Realtor Have to Disclose That a House Is Supposedly Haunted?

If you asked me if I believe in ghosts, I’d probably say “no.” But, perhaps contradictorily, I somehow believe that houses can be haunted. And am pretty sure that I’ll be the person who one day buys one. Thanks to Michele Debczak, I now know which states must disclose if a house is “stigmatized” and have learned that a site called DiedInHouse.com exists, so am feeling much better about my chances of not moving into a Poltergeist situation. —JMW

Mary Frith, 17th-Century London's Smoking, Thieving, Foul-Mouthed "Roaring Girl"

It's easy to fall into the idea that women of the past were always obedient homemakers. Then comes along someone like Mary Frith, who in 1600s England was dressing in men's clothing, smoking, stealing, singing, having plays written about her, and generally doing whatever she pleased. I love how Meg Van Huygen resuscitates her story and tells it even with its complexity (some of her biography may be invented) and gaps. It's a reminder that history is messy, non-linear, and often so much more interesting than we've been taught. —BL

How the World's Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People

Dame Sibyl Hathaway
Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

I was lucky enough to visit Sark and interview Dame Sibyl’s great-grandson and current Seigneur, Michael Beaumont. I admit I’ve never interviewed a feudal lord before. He invited me into the Seigneurie, the feudal mansion, and we chatted in the same plush personal library that the Dame used. Afterward, the seigneur gave me a tour of the house and casually showed me the centuries-old, yellowing charters that granted Sark its fiefdom—all signed by long-dead monarchs! It was surreal to explore the building where Dame Sibyl confronted the Nazis. —LR

The Story Behind Keith Richards's Most Famous Birthday Gift

I'm always looking for “flossy” music stories to run, and when a Rolling Stone gets to celebrate a birthday, wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of his most famous accessory all on the same day? I just couldn't resist. —Erika Berlin, Senior Editor

6 Explosive Fart Controversies

At Mental Floss, we sometimes write sweeping features about defeating Nazis. We sometimes write about fun facts and trivia, or useful how-tos that allow our readers to live smarter. And sometimes, we write about fart-based controversies. You can’t tell me this isn’t the best job in the world. —EM

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
arlutz73/iStock via Getty Images

Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
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Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
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It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

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