- Some popular holiday traditions have dark origins, or once looked much different than they are now.
- In the 1700s, carolers would sometimes break down doors and demand food and drink from residents.
- And although “The Nutcracker” is a beautiful ballet, it’s actually based on a pretty creepy story.
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Christmas is often a time for following beloved traditions – but some of the most famous annual activities have pretty unexpected or dark roots.
Here are a few holiday customs that have surprising origins and explanations.
Good King Wenceslas was a real person who was stabbed and dismembered.
“Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol about a kind king who helps a poor peasant in a snowstorm.
However, most people don’t know that the inspiration for the song was a real person who died horribly.
Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia was born in 907 AD. After the death of his father, Vratislaus I, Wenceslaus was raised by his mother Drahomira, who was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief.
In September 935 AD, Wenceslaus was murdered on his brother’s orders. He was stabbed repeatedly with a lance while praying and dismembered in front of a church.
In the 1700s, carolers would sometimes break down doors and demand food and drink from residents.
Singing carols door-to-door may be an innocent holiday diversion today, but it was once a controversial and potentially dangerous practice.
In a piece for Salon, author and historian Thomas Christensen recounted how the carolers or “wassailers” of the 17th century would arrive at homes unannounced and demand to be given the residents’ finest food and drink.
They would sometimes threaten violence and rape, destroy property, and sing songs with lyrics such as, “We’ve come here to claim our right/And if you don’t open up your door/We’ll lay it flat upon the floor.”
One minister in the early 1700s railed against the observance of Christmas, and especially the practice of caroling. He complained that caroling drove people to “Rioting, Chambering [fornication], and Wantonness.”
Although it’s become a pretty ballet, “The Nutcracker” is a surprisingly creepy tale.
“The Nutcracker” ballet is based on the 1816 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann.
In the original tale, a 7-year-old girl named Marie slices her arm open after being startled by a vision of her toy nutcracker coming to life. As she recuperates, her godfather, Drosselmeyer, tells her the tale of a man cursed with the ugliness of a nutcracker by a heartless queen.
When Marie eventually declares that she would love the Nutcracker no matter his appearance, she is whisked away into the doll kingdom to marry him. The two are wed within a year of meeting, even though that would make Marie 8 years old at the time of her marriage.
Christmas parties may have their origins in wild pagan festivals.
Christmas hasn’t always been celebrated on December 25. That date of Jesus’s birth was only officially decided more than 300 years after his death by Pope Julius I.
Before that, Christ’s birth was marked on at least three different dates: March 29, January 6, and sometime in June.
Conveniently, December 25 roughly coincides with the date of the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the winter solstice, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
This ancient festival involved unrestrained drinking and role reversal between slaves and their masters. Schools were closed, criminals were allowed to run rampant, and the wealthy were encouraged to give gifts to the poor in order to avoid robbery.
Yule Logs used to be real wooden logs.
Although we think of yule logs today as sweet Christmas cakes, they used to be actual logs that would be burned on the fire. Back in Europe’s Iron age, many people would burn logs decorated with pinecones, holly, and ivy, according to The History Channel.
Burning the logs was said to bring good luck for the new year, but the ashes were some of the biggest prizes from the ceremony.
They were said to ward against ageing and even protect the person who had them against lightning, which, as the History Channel noted, was important, given that many houses were made of wood.
Going down the chimney is actually tied to dozens of scary supernatural legends.
As it turns out, Santa isn’t the only one who can creep into homes unnoticed via the chimney.
There are countless European legends that tell of both helpful and malicious supernatural creatures sneaking into homes through chimneys.
Scottish and English legends tell of the brownie, which is a helpful household spirit that enters and exists homes at night through the chimney.
In the Middle Ages, witches were also thought to pass into homes through their chimneys.
In Greece, goblins called Kallikantzaroi were known to crawl into homes through the chimney and terrorize the families within whereas in 19-century Pennsylvania, Pelznickel or Belsnickel slipped down chimneys to reward good children with oranges and punish naughty ones with a whip.
Mistletoe used to be used to pardon criminals.
Although we see it now as a plant meant to be kissed under, mistletoe has some darker origins. It was seen as a sign of friendship by the Druids and because of that, it was banned by religious leaders in England.
But later, York Minster Church in the UK began to hold a special “mistletoe service” each winter. During that service, criminals from the town could come and bring a sprig of mistletoe and be pardoned for their wrongdoings, according to Tripsavvy.
They would apparently declare “public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom of all sorts of inferior and wicked people at the minster gates, and the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of heaven.”
Today, you can still see mistletoe on the altar of the church during the holiday season.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was actually intended to be a feature-length Coca-Cola commercial.
Though less dark and more surprising, the adventures of the Peanuts gang in the 1965 film “A Charlie Brown Christmas” were originally intended to be a commercial for the soda, Coke.
The original film included title slides telling viewers that the program was sponsored by the Coca-Cola company.
In response to changing attitudes about product placement over the years, CBS quietly edited out references to Coke in the program.
Milk and cookies began as a Great Depression ritual in America.
Leaving out milk and cookies for Santa is a tradition that many places practice, but it began being popularised in America during the Great Depression.
According to the History Channel, parents encouraged children to leave cookies for Santa during that time of economic hardship to show that you should always be grateful for the things that you were given and that giving was just as good as receiving.
Hanging Christmas stockings may be connected to a legend about poverty.
Packing those stockings full of treats may be a fun Christmas tradition these days, but the custom may have its origins in a decidedly grim tale of illness and poverty.
According to Donald E. Dossey’s book “Holiday Folklore, Phobias, and Fun,” the tradition is tied to a story about a 4th-century bishop who overheard an elderly man bemoaning the fact that he would not have enough money to supply his three daughters with a dowry. At the time, women lacking a dowry would be unable to marry and would likely have been forced into prostitution in order to support themselves.
The legend goes that St. Nicholas was so moved by the old man’s plight that he crept into the family’s home at night and filled their stockings, which had been hung by the fireplace to dry, with bags of gold.
The three women and their father lived happily ever after. The bishop would later be anointed St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and at least one inspiration for Santa Claus.
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