5 Christmas Traditions With Origins That Will Leave You Scratching Your Head

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We look forward to familiar rites, decorations, songs and so on all year long – our traditions help ground us in our lives even as time moves along and so many things change. The holidays are times of many traditions, from the decidedly religious and solemn, such as the lighting of ceremonial Hanukah candles, to the totally secular, such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day football rivalries. However, other traditions and practices of the season are decidedly from the fringe (which can also be read: “straight up weird”).
In an effort to both shed light on some strange holiday traditions while not sticking even one little toe into a stance on the religion from whence it came, let us be clear: we are focusing on Christmas and we are leaving any stances on sanctity (or sanity) out of this article. This is an equal opportunity look at just what the hell is behind some of our most cherished Christmas traditions, even though the truth will make you wonder just what was going on back in the day…

5 The Yule Log

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The Yule Log – a great way to achieve A) nothing, as large logs are near impossible to light, or B) burning your house down on Christmas Eve. This is yet another tradition that seems to have no specific wellspring. Allowing for the fact that fire is a good way to make a home less cold in winter, the specific tradition of lighting a Yule Log still makes no sense, in that the “proper” size for a Yule Log is about equivalent to the thigh of a pachyderm. That means you either better have a really, really big fireplace, or you better go with Ye Olde Duraflame and just pretend. Or go a step farther and pretend with that 24-7 “Burning Fire Channel” on TV!

4 Christmas Witch

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Belfana, the Christmas Witch! In Italy, many children are told that their presents come not from Jolly ol’ Saint Nick, but from Belfana, the Christmas Witch. This is so because apparently the Vatican chafed at the idea of an ever more secular Santa and decided to declare that the saintly (Saint Nick; Jesus; etc.) and the secular (gifts) should be separated so… they went with a witch.

3 Mistletoe

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Mistletoe, the Kissing Killer Death Leech Plant! Yes, indeed it is so. If you find yourself and that special someone (meaning of course: “drunk guy from the accounting department”) under the mistletoe, it’s time to steal a smooch! Hey, that’s what mistletoe does anyway: it grows on “host” plants by penetrating the branches and leeching nutrients from the hapless host. As for why we kiss underneath it… we don’t really know. Early Christians incorporated it into their seasonal décor, and by the 16th century the kissing thing was common, but the tradition could have sprung from the Norse, the Celts, the Druids or someplace completely different.

2 December 25th

And speaking of Christmas trees, why not go right for the jugular and ask why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? Same story as the tree, pretty much: the pagans/druids/pre-Christians were already doing it. There is no fixed date for the birth of Jesus (regardless of fact, miracle, etc. OK? We’re just saying something non-controversial about a date) so early Christians went ahead and picked a time a lot of their potential converts were already venerating, the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year but the day after which brightness is ever growing, and said “Hey, we’re gonna celebrate Jesus’ birthday… here!” This date was locked in sometime in the 4th century, which happens to be the century in which Christians stopped being oppressed, murdered, and generally thought of as “not exactly correct” and began their ascent to being a dominant world religion. Side bar: Christmas Day was briefly set a January 6th… thus the Twelve Days of Christmas!

1 Christmas Tree

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Oh Tannenbaum! Yes, your beloved Christmas Tree, that pine you pine for all year long… does not really make any sense. And that’s true whether viewed from the Christian tradition or from the Druid tradition from which it was surreptitiously adopted. The “modern” Christmas tree (however modern we can call the practice of bringing a tree into your home and filling it with lit candles, as was the norm through the 19th century) dates back to Germany in the 1500s, but those 16th century Germans were merely taking a page from the pre-Christian nature worship. The tree used to be venerated near the winter solstice, and that alignment with Christmastime made it easy to translate an ancient tradition into one of the ornamental pillars of “modern,” or at least enduring, tradition. Listen, we love our Christmas tree as much as the next guy, but we also acknowledge that it really makes no sense.

We hope we haven’t put a damper on things, kids! Santa (or Belfana) is still sure to come around, even if you have a tree that makes no sense, a blazing Yule Log sending flames up the chimney and some gross figgy pudding lying around!

Steven John is a published novelist and competitive pole vault champion. (The latter is not true.) His writing runs the gamut from speculative fiction to essays fueled by a mix of mirth and derision. He has never been to Lisbon but, statistically speaking, is probably taller than you.

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