How to Tell the Future With Snails, and 14 Other Pieces of Outmoded Advice

iStock.com/AlexRaths
iStock.com/AlexRaths

In the days before Google, people had few options for solving their most vexing practical and social problems. If you wanted to know how to make pickles, fix the Victrola, or write a letter to your boss, your choices were generally to ask someone or look it up in a book. As our Google searches may someday be to future historians, the advice manuals of yore often provide a fascinating treasure trove of information about how people once lived, the problems they encountered, and what they considered most important.

How to Skin a Lion, out this month from University of Chicago Press, collects some of the most interesting and unusual pieces of advice found in the archives of the British Library. Author Claire Cock-Starkey draws on Georgian manuscripts, Victorian manuals, and self-help guides from the early twentieth century to collect tidbits on subjects as diverse as medicine and mourning, hunting and homemaking. The book includes instructions for putting back a dislocated jaw, catching and preserving eels, or making turnip wine—should you ever feel the need to.

Much of the advice, says Cock-Starkey, shows how much more self-reliant we used to be: “You needed to know how to mend your own clothes, make your own cosmetics and smoke your own bacon." What's more, even the simplest tasks took a lot more time. As the author puts it, “If you wanted ice in your drink you couldn’t just open the fridge, someone had to harvest that ice from glacial lakes in North America, ship it across the ocean and transport it in huge chunks to your ice-house.” (The book includes a fascinating account of the “ice farms”—American lakes—that Europeans relied upon in the 19th century.)

The most surprising advice she encountered, she says, was an Englishman’s account of a method used in India for getting rid of fleas. He “recounted that the locals would either cover the floor of their house in straw then set it alight, or get a herd of cattle to run through the house in the hope that the fleas would jump aboard the marauding cows and exit [the] abode.” The first method, according to the Englishman, would probably result in the house burning down, while the second was unlikely to do any good at all.

On her blog and Twitter account, Cock-Starkey has been spotlighting some of the most obscure terms and ingredients she encountered (such as a “skep,” a traditional domed wooden bee hive, and a "cheesart," or cheese vat). She has also been trying out some of the recipes: an experiment in making mushroom ketchup did not turn out as well as hoped, although the lemon barley water was a relative hit. Extracts from some of the more notable pieces of advices included in How to Skin a Lion are included below:

1. How to cure a headache

To ease a man of the head ache, thus make his nose bleed: take seeds of red nettles and make them to a powder in a morter and blow a little of the same into his nose with a quill.

But if ye cannot get seeds of nettle put a whole of a herbe called milkfoyl or barbe into the nose and rub the nose outward softly; then it should bleed. But if it be winter and ye cannot get nettles, etc., and would glad ease the head ache, then take two sack bands and tye them, first, firmly about the legs around the knees, and this for the space of half a pater noster. Then lose it again and tye it again.

Do this the space of a quarter of an hour, then tye his arms about the elbow, likewise, thus shalt though draw the blood from his head. This must be done carefully lest his limbs become blue.

2.How to read the future—with snails

Close up of a snail on a leaf
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Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) suggests that the key to reading your future is to utilize the common or garden snail:

Another mode of divination for future fate in life is by snails. The young girls go out early before sunrise to trace the path of the snails in the clay, for always a letter is marked, and this is the initial of the true lover’s name. A black snail is very unlucky to meet first in the morning, for his trail would read death; but a white snail brings good fortune.

3. How to read moles

Young woman with a mole on her cheek
iStock.com/jwblinn

Nine Pennyworth of Wit for a Penny (1750) informed readers how to read their fortune by examining the positioning of their moles:

Moles in the face particularly, and those in other parts of the body are very significant as to good or bad fortune.

A mole on the left side of the forehead, denotes the party will get rich by tillage, building and planting.

A mole on the right side of the forehead, promises happy contentment of life, a loving state in matrimony, &c.

A mole on the middle of the forehead, denotes a person subject to sickness, and other afflictions.

A mole on the left side of the temple, promises loss and affliction to either sex in the first part of their age; but happiness by overcoming them in the end.

A mole on the eyebrow signifies speedy marriage and a good husband.

A mole on the left cheek, inclining towards the lower part of the ear, denotes loss in goods, and crosses by children; threatens a woman with death in child-bed.

A mole on the nose, foretells the birth of many children, and persons powerful in generation.

A mole on the right corner of the mouth, near the jaw, promises happy days to either sex; but on the left side, unlawful copulation, and much loss thereby.

A mole on the left shoulder denotes labour, travel and sorrow.

4. How to brush your hair

A young woman brushing her hair
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The Handbook of the Toilette (1839) includes the following advice on the proper method for brushing your hair:

The skin of the head must therefore be kept perfectly clean, and in a state of proper tone. To effect this, a brush should be used thrice a day if possible, which is strong, not too close, and will penetrate through the hair to the skin. This application of the brush, on rising in the morning, should last full half an hour; and if the hair belong to a lady, and be very thick and long, a quarter of an hour more should be devoted to brushing it, making it in all three quarters of an hour. On dressing for dinner, the brush should be applied to the head during five or six minutes, and during about ten minutes at night. It is often serviceable to rub into the hair in the morning, before the brush is applied, either hair-powder or bran—it is almost immaterial which, though I think the first preferable.

5. How to use leeches

Leeches have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Household Medicine and Surgery, Sick-room Management and Cookery for Invalids (1854) recommends the following method:

When leeches are applied to a part, it should be thoroughly freed from down or hair by shaving, and all dirt, liniments, &c. carefully and effectually cleaned away by washing. If the leech is hungry it will soon bite; but sometimes great difficulty is experienced in getting the animal to fasten. When this is the case, roll the leech in a little porter, or moisten the surface with a little blood or milk, or sugar or water. Leeches may be applied by holding them over the part with a piece of linen cloth or by the means of a glass.

However, caution is advised if using the leeches in sensitive areas: “When applied to the gums, care should be taken to use a leech glass, as they are apt to creep down the patient’s throat; a large swan’s quill will answer the purpose of a leech glass."

To remove a leech, the following is recommended: “When leeches are gorged, they will drop off themselves; never tear them off from a person, but just dip the tip of a moistened finger in some salt and touch them with that.”

6. How a lady should conduct herself in polite society

Two women in medieval dresses gossip on the sofa
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Some advice is timeless, as evident in some of the tips provided by Etiquette for the Ladies—Eighty Maxims on Dress, Manners and Accomplishments (1838):

If you are a married lady, and have children, never insist on showing off their precocity before company. In nine cases out of ten, however much people may affect to applaud, depend upon it they look upon such exhibitions as a bore.

Never allow your pursuit after fashion to be so eager, as to make people suppose that you have nothing better than the mode of your dress to recommend you.

Perfumes are not altogether to be forbidden; but they should never be so strong or in such quantity, as to excite attention. When they are used too profusely, people are apt to suppose that you have some particular reason for their use, beyond the mere desire to gratify your olfactory organ.

Yet other nuggets of advice have not stood the test of time so well:

It is not considered proper for ladies to wear gloves during dinner. To appear in public without them—to sit in church or in a place of public amusement destitute of these appendages, is decidedly vulgar. Some gentlemen insist on stripping off their gloves before shaking hands;—a piece of barbarity, of which no lady will be guilty.

Scarcely any thing is so repulsive in a lady—so utterly plebeian, as speaking in a loud harsh voice. As in Shakespeare’s time, a ‘small’ voice is still considered "an excellent thing in a woman."

7. How to keep fresh breath

Facial portrait of a woman laughing
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The horrors of bad breath are described in The Handbook of the Toilette (1839):

If ladies were conscious of the effect produced upon the breath by late hours, heating diet, hot and crowded rooms, and the several other enemies to the constitution necessarily encountered by a life of dissipation, they would be horror-stricken at finding that they render themselves offensive and disgusting to those whom it is their duty as well as their best policy to please. The same remark applies to men under similar circumstances, joined perhaps to a habit of taking wine and ardent spirits, if not to excess, at least in greater quantity than is requisite. In the morning the body is feverish, the tongue loaded with a white crust; vapors rise from the stomach, and the breath is foul. And when this mode of life is continued, in addition to the loss of the bloom given by health, the breath is most offensively impregnated with fetid exhalations from the stomach.

The most effective sweetener of the breath is health of body … but where vapours and fermentation of the stomach exist, the only substances which can destroy the fetid exhalations, are the disinfecting chlorides. As the solution of chloride of lime is too harsh, the concentrated solution of the chloride of soda … should alone be admitted at the toilette. From six to ten drops of this substance in a wineglassful of pure spring water, taken immediately after the operations of the morning are completed, will instantly sweeten the breath, by disinfecting the stomach, which, far from being injured, will be benefitted by the medicine.

8. How to refuse a proposal of marriage

A woman being offered an engagement ring
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The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1865) recommends:

When a lady rejects the proposal of a gentleman, her behavior should be characterized by the most delicate feeling towards one who, in offering her his hand, has proved his desire to confer upon her, by this implied preference for her above all other women, the greatest honor it is in his power to offer. Therefore, if she have no love for him, she ought at least to evince a tender regard for his feelings.

No woman of proper feeling would regard her rejection of an offer of marriage from a worthy man as a matter of triumph: her feeling on such an occasion should be one of regretful sympathy with him for the pain she is unavoidably compelled to inflict. Nor should such a rejection be unaccompanied with some degree of self-examination on her part, to discern whether any lightness of demeanor or tendency to flirtation may have given rise to a false hope of her favoring his suit. At all events, no lady should ever treat a man who has so honored her with the slightest disrespect or frivolous disregards, nor ever unfeelingly parade a more favored suitor before one whom she has refused.

9. How to address a Maharajah

The etiquette necessary for socializing with the local gentry in colonial India frequently flummoxed the English, who often consulted guides such as Hints on Indian Etiquette Specially Designed for the Use of Europeans by Iftikhar Husain (1911). Husain advised that the following form should be followed when writing a letter to a Maharajah or person of a similar rank:

“You of exalted rank, lofty position and of noble birth, may you have increased graciousness.”

And he advises that one might sign off with the following:

“Your obedient servant”

or

“The lowest of the low”

or

“Humble as dust”

The Anglo-Hindoostanee Hand-book; or, Stranger’s Self-interpreter and Guide to Colloquial and General Intercourse with the Natives of India (1850) offered some counsel on the etiquette of visiting:

Natives of high rank—hindoo or moohummudun, when receiving visits of ceremony usually retain their seats, unless the visitors be their equals, or otherwise European officials of high rank in the service of the British government, in which event the parties visited rise and advance a certain distance according to the degree of ceremonious respect that the rank of the visitor may claim or circumstances suggest.

The visitor must also remember to leave in the appropriate style, making sure they take careful note of the elaborate hints that indicate that they have overstayed their welcome:

Immediately ere parting the parties visited usually present to each of their guests Utr-pan (a cud of betel-pepper leaves), and then, with bottles, sprinkle rose-water over their handkerchiefs or clothes, which ceremony if performed ere the visitors themselves be prepared to go, is the usual polite intimation that their departure is desired.

10. How to make a love charm

The Book of Charms and Ceremonies: whereby all may have the opportunity of obtaining any object they desire by "Merlin" (1892) offers the following instructions on how to make a love charm.

Agrippa says that the hair off the belly of a goat, tied into knots and concealed in the roof of the house of the beloved, will produce furious love, whereby the maiden will not be able to withstand the entreaties of her lover, but will be so enchanted with him that marriage will soon take place.

11. How to skin a lion

A lion in grass
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Should the hunter also wish to preserve the lion’s skull as a trophy, Charles McCann advises the following method in his 1927 A Shikari’s Pocket-book:

Cut off all the removable flesh. Take out the brain through the orifice at the back by pushing a stick into it and stirring them up, then shaking out the resultant porridge. Pouring hot water into the brain-case and shaking it out again will help greatly to bring away the contents. Do not give this job to an ignorant native to do, unless he has done it before correctly in your presence. If not he will inevitably chop off the back of the skull with an axe in order to get at the brains. Wash the skull and hang it up to dry, after tying the lower jawbone firmly on to it.

12. How to prevent bad luck

A pitcher and glass of milk in front of a sunny spring field
iStock.com/IakovKalinin

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde (1887) is full of advice on how to protect the family from those most pesky of pests, witches, and fairies:

The witches, however, make great efforts to steal the milk on May morning, and if they succeed, the luck passes from the family, and the milk and butter for the whole year will belong to the fairies. The best preventative is to scatter primroses on the threshold; and the old women tie bunches of primroses to the cows’ tails, for the evil spirits cannot touch anything guarded by these flowers, if they are plucked before sunrise, not else. A piece of iron, also, made red hot, is placed upon the hearth; any old iron will do, the older the better, and branches of whitethorn and mountain ash are wreathed around the doorway for luck. The mountain ash has very great and mysterious qualities. If a branch of it be woven into the roof, that house is safe from fire for a year at least, and if a branch of it is mixed with the timber of a boat, no storm will upset it, and no man in it be drowned for twelvemonth.

13. How to get presented at Court

Royal Courts of Justice
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Getting presented at Court was vital for any young lady wishing to become part of the English social scene. The methods have changed over the years, but Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Rules and Observances of Good Society (1900) describes the Victorian method, in which girls had the opportunity to be presented to Queen Victoria four times a season (twice before Easter and twice after).

When a girl is about to be presented at Court she procures a large blank card, and write legibly upon it her own name and that of the lady who presents her, thus: ‘Mrs. Percy, presented by Lady White’ … This card is left at the Lord Chamberlain’s office in St. James’s Palace at least two clear days before the drawing-room, and is accompanied by a note from the lady who is to present her … The names are submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, and on sending to the office two days later the lady receives two ‘presentation’ or pink cards, on which she write legibly the same words as those on the former card. These cards she takes with her to the palace, one being left with the page-in-waiting at the top of the grand staircase; the other is taken by an official at the door of the presence-chamber, and passed to the Lord Chamberlain, who reads the name to Her Majesty.

The doors of the Palace are opened at two o’clock, and the Queen enters the throne room at three. Ladies carry their trains, folded, over the arm until they reach the door of the picture gallery, where it is removed from its wearer’s arm by the attendants in waiting, and the lady passes across the gallery with it flowing at full length to the door of the throne-room.

If the lady is to be presented she must have her right hand ungloved, and as she bends before the Queen she extends her hands palm downwards; the Queen places her hand upon it, the lady touches the royal hand with her lips, and the presentation is over; the lady passes on, stepping backwards, curtseying to those members of the royal family present.

A lady requires to be re-presented when any change occurs in her social status. For instance, she must be again presented on her marriage, if she has been presented before, also should her husband succeed to any higher title. If she fails in this, she has no further right to appear at Court.

14. How to dress like a gentleman

A stylish man reading a newspaper at an outdoor cafe
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Some tips become quickly outmoded, but these tips for the stylish man from All About Etiquette: or The Manners of Polite Society for Ladies, Gentlemen, and Families (1879) are timeless:

If you wear your beard, wear it in moderation—extremes are always vulgar. Avoid all fantastic arrangements of the hair, either turning it under in a roll, or allowing it to straggle in long and often seemingly ‘uncombed and unkempt’ masses over the coat collar, or having it cropped so close as to give the wearer the appearance of a sporting character.

For appendages, eschew all flash stones; nothing is more unexceptionable for sleeve-buttons and the fastenings of the front of a shirt than fine gold, fashioned in some simple form, sufficiently massive to indicate use and durability, and skillfully and handsomely wrought, if ornamented at all. A gentleman carries a watch for convenience and secures it safely upon his person, wearing it with no useless ornament paraded to the eye. It is like his pencil and purse, good of its kind, and, if he can afford it, handsome, but it is never flashy. The fashion for wearing signet rings is not so general, perhaps, as it was a little while since, but it still retains a place among the minutiae of the present subject. Here, again, the same rules of good taste apply as to other ornaments. When worn at all, everything of this sort should be most unexceptionally and unmistakably tasteful and genuine.

15. How to use the English method of fortune-telling by cards

Playing cards
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A Handbook of Cartomancy: Fortune-telling and Occult Divination by Grand Orient (1889) reveals the secrets of fortune telling with cards. The suit of diamonds was said to have the following meanings:

Ace of Diamonds – A letter – from whom, and what about, must be judged from neighbouring cards.

King of Diamonds – A fair man, hot tempered, obstinate and revengeful.

Queen of Diamonds – A fair woman, fond of company and a coquette.

Knave of Diamonds – A near relation who considers only his interests. Also a fair person’s thoughts.

Ten of Diamonds – Money.

Nine of Diamonds – Shews that a person is fond of roving.

Eight of Diamonds – A marriage late in life.

Seven of Diamonds – Satire, evil speaking.

Six of Diamonds – Early marriage and widowhood.

Five of Diamonds – Unexpected news.

Four of Diamonds – Trouble arising from unfaithful friends; also a betrayed secret.

Three of Diamonds – Quarrels, law-suits, and domestic disagreements.

Two of diamonds – An engagement against the wishes of friends.

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
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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
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

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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