Why Do British Judges Wear Wigs?

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iStock

by James Hunt

The UK's judiciary is often mocked for being out of touch with the society they represent—likely, in part, because of the faintly ridiculous wigs and robes they wear.

It's not unusual for members of high officiary to wear a uniform, of course. Priests and archbishops wear robes and hats—but unlike judges, these are mostly reserved for official and ceremonial functions. Even the Queen doesn't wear her actual crown full-time.

So why do British judges still wear wigs?

The tradition of "court dress" dates back almost 700 years, to the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377). At the time, a long robe, cowl, and cloak were standard dress for attending the royal court. At the time the material for the robes—usually ermine, taffeta, and/or silk—was given to judges in the form of a grant from the Crown. Although the colors changed over the years, the same dress was retained until 1635, when it was formalized in the "Judges Rules."

Since then, there have been small changes to the type and style of robes that judges wear, sometimes allied with changes to the court structure and sometimes not. But the wigs? They were a major addition which occurred in the 17th century, purely because the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) made them fashionable to all members of polite society.

Surprisingly, the judiciary actually resisted this change in fashion at first. Prior to the 17th century, the only requirement regarding hair was that lawyers and judges maintained theirs as clean and short. Even as late as the 1680s, portraits show judges sitting or standing wig-free. But the trend finally caught on, and even though they started to fall out of favor with the public by the 1760s, wigs remained part of the formal dress of lawyers, judges, bishops, and coachmen.

Although the requirement for bishops to wear wigs was dropped in the early 1800s, the tradition persists in the courts—and with good reasons. Despite the high cost and associated discomfort, some people argue that court dress enforces the authority of the law, by setting them apart visually from the public. Others say it prevents favoritism, ensuring that the opinion of a jury cannot be influenced by the dress of a barrister.

In more recent times, the requirements have been substantially relaxed, and the use of robes and wigs is mostly seen during criminal cases and at formal events. It's possible that they'll be discarded entirely within our lifetimes. For now, just enjoy the strange mixture of absurdity and impressiveness that accompanies these strange traditions—ones which have persisted for centuries without anyone being entirely clear as to why.

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

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iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

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iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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