15 Holiday Traditions We Need to Bring Back

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December is full of amazing traditions and festivities, but many wonderful holiday customs have faded into near-obscurity. These fifteen examples deserve a comeback. 

1. Decorate With Rose Petals

Ease up on the poinsettias this year and do as the Colonial Virginians did—spruce up your home with fragrant roses and lavender during the holiday season. It gives a nice floral alternative to the amazing holiday aromas of evergreen and gingerbread.

2. Have a Child Run The Party 

Role-reversal was a key component in the ancient Roman holiday called “Saturnalia.” Families would elect somebody of relatively low status—usually a child—as their “princeps” (or “leader”), who’d preside over the festivities. This may be the year that your pre-teen is ready to be promoted to party planner.

3. Humble Pie 

Also known as ‘umble pie, this hearty dish became a Christmas staple during the 1600s. A deer’s “humbles”—i.e., its heart, liver, brains, and similarly neglected organs—were the entrée’s namesake ingredients. You may want to move this one lower on your holiday to-do list than the rose petals. 

4. White Tie New Year’s Eve Parties

As they greeted each approaching New Year, well-to-do Gilded Age households commonly threw swanky get-togethers. For the gentlemen, white ties and waistcoats were deemed standard attire, while ladies sported corseted evening gowns.

5. Hot Cockles

Flirtation was often a fun side effect of this pre-Victorian holiday game. The rules are straightforward: One blindfolded player kneels and rests his or her head in somebody’s lap. Another participant then lightly smacks the kneeler’s backside, and the blindfolded party would have to guess who did it. 

6. Ceramic Tipping Boxes 

For centuries, Brits would present their servants and apprentices with ceramic boxes that contained an annual holiday bonus on the day after Christmas. While Boxing Day remains on the calendar in many countries, the boxes themselves are due for a comeback.

7. Alphabetical Feasts

The Brumalia was a Greco-Roman festival that stretched from November 24 to December 17, and each of the 24 days was assigned a specific Greek letter. A celebrant would honor his or her friends with individual banquets hosted on the days that matched the first letters of their names. The English alphabet would require a couple of extra days, but we’re sure your friend Xavier wouldn’t mind being the center of attention for a day.

8. Redding the House

Hogmanay—Scotland’s traditional New Year’s festival—historically involved cleaning (or “redding”) houses before midnight fell on December 31. Clearing out your fireplace held particular significance because the reading of its ashes (much like reading tea leaves) could tell you what to expect from the coming year.

9. Presents with Poems

Here’s another neat Saturnalia practice: When giving gifts to friends and loved ones in observance of this holiday, some Romans customarily included slips of paper upon which seasonal poems were written. Fun poetry makes modern “To/From” tags seem boring by comparison.

10. Skipping Laundry Day 

During the 19th century, the British considered it bad luck to do laundry on New Year’s Day. Many believed doing so could cause a death (or “washing-out”) in the family, while others were probably just happy to give the clothesline a day off.

11. Shoe the Mare 

After Christmas dinner, Elizabethans enjoyed this athletic game, which featured one barefooted family member running about like an unruly steed. Everyone else tried to catch and “shoe” (albeit with human footgear) the runner. 

12. 12 Days of Mince Pies 

For good luck, Medieval Europeans would enjoy a hearty minced meat pie, spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, on each of the 12 days of Christmas (December 25-January 6). Yum! 

13. Yule Mumming 

Why should Halloween get all the scares? On Christmas Eve, Scandinavian youngsters used to grab their spookiest masks and frighten unsuspecting neighbors while acting like ghosts. This would certainly spice up lackluster office parties.

14. Cake Tossing 

Chucking a perfectly good cake against a door sounds like an awful waste of delicious sweets, but heads-of-households in the 1890s felt that doing so would bring a year without hunger.

15. Wassailing 


“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green…” Have you ever sung this carol and found yourself wondering what the heck “wassailing” is? Come Christmastime in the 1600s, Englishmen would prepare huge bowls of a hot, cider-based drink and walk from door-to-door offering cupfuls (sometimes in exchange for cash).

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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