It seems each year Christmas shows up just a little bit earlier. It’s funny; the date never moves on the calendar, and yet, how often do we find ourselves scratching our heads at the end of November going, “Oh yeah, Christmas.”
Although let’s be honest, it’s more like, “Oh crap, Christmas!”
I love all those Christmas blog posts that show up this time of year promising “10 Ways to Simplify Your Christmas”, and the suggestions are all things that ultimately mean more work and planning in the end.
So, I won’t make an empty promise that anything here will make your Christmas less busy.
But maybe this Christmas is different.
Perhaps you find yourself wanting to change things up this year, or you need a little extra cheer in your Christmas season because it’s been a tough year. Maybe you want to focus less on the commercial and more on family and home.
You might find one or two neat old-fashioned Christmas traditions here to try with your family this season. And who knows, it could turn into a new family tradition to look forward to every year.
Many of the Christmas traditions we hold near and dear have Victorian origins. We can thank Queen Victoria and her German husband for popularizing the Christmas tree. And Dickens brought us the infamous Scrooge. An American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, cemented our vision of Santa Claus as a grandfatherly figure in red. (ThoughtCo.)
And we’ve steadily commercialized these things to death over the centuries.
Going back even further, the celebration of Christmas, despite being a Christian holiday, is rooted directly in pagan celebrations as well as the ancient Roman’s celebration of Saturnalia. As the early church began converting people to Christianity, they found the easiest way to get them on board was to let everyone keep their celebrations but change the focus to the Christian message of Christ’s birth and the belief in one God.
I’ve dug up a few old-fashioned Christmas traditions that have fallen along the wayside. I think quite a few of these are worth reviving mainly because their focus is on time spent with family, friends, and neighbors and displays of love and kindness to one another.
Many fun memories are just waiting to be made here.
“Here we go a-wassailing, among the leaves so green.”
Do we? What the heck is a wassail anyway?
Wassailing comes to us from pre-Christian England, where it was tradition to make a big batch of wassail – a kind of mulled cider-mead-punch (oh gosh, if only we had a recipe for something like that) and then use it to toast one another’s good health in the coming new year. Wassail is Anglo-Saxon and means’ waes hael’ or ‘be hale.’
While this party often took place in some fancy Lord’s hall, the tradition grew legs.
Eventually, to go wassailing meant you would make a big bowl of wassail, fill your cup with it and go for a walk around the neighborhood, stopping and toasting neighbors or getting a refill.
Something tells me showing up on your neighbor’s doorstep in the evening, beer in hand, and shouting, “Here’s to your health, Jim!” while taking a good long slug wouldn’t go over too well these days.
However, I think we need to bring back wassailing. And there are many ways you could do it too.
Plan an online video party with friends or family that are too far away to visit, and show up via ZOOM, hot mulled wine in hand. Then you could all take turns raising your glass and giving personalized toasts filled with good wishes for those you love.
Or you and the family could do what I did last night.
Have everyone bundle up, fill your travel mugs with hot mulled cider, go for a walk around town and stop to enjoy the beautifully decorated houses all lit up with Christmas lights. If your setting is more rural, hop in the car and drive into town. Make it a point to seek out the best-lit houses.
And don’t forget to raise your thermos and toast the families inside those homes. They may not know they’ve been wassailed, but they’ll still receive the benefit.
2. Telling Ghost Stories at Christmas
Of course, we all know and love the most famous Christmas ghost story, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” However, long before Dickens penned his Christmas classic, the holiday has always had a touch of the supernatural to it.
For many, Christmas Eve was like the Day of the Dead, where the deceased were closer to the living world. Long winter nights spent around the fire swapping tales led to this tradition, which began with the pagan celebration of yule.
This year why not tell a spooky story or two.
Fix a cup of hot cocoa, turn off all the lights and light a few candles or sit by the fire. Wrap up in blankets and tell each other tales of things that go bump in the night.
Perhaps you could give a prize to whoever tells the best story. For instance, the winner gets to open the first gift on Christmas day or doesn’t have to help with the washing up after Christmas dinner.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be blood, guts, and gore, just something spooky, supernatural, or exceptionally odd. Heck, even reading a chapter or two from the Harry Potter series counts; there are ghosts in those stories.
If you’ve got little ones around that scare easily, may I suggest watching The Muppet Christmas Carol? It is by far my favorite modern-day version of Chuck’s classic Christmas tale with plenty of great singing and just the right amount of spooky.
3. Burning a Yule Log
Another celebration left most likely due to a lack of space was the burning of the yule log. A tree, yes, a whole tree, was chosen by the family and burned all in one go to chase away evil spirits and to hasten the return of the sun and warmer days.
I think this would be so much fun to do if you live somewhere where you could have an outdoor fire going all day and long into the night. You could have an open invitation for friends, family, and neighbors to pop in at any time to enjoy hot drinks around the yule fire.
Don’t forget to save a piece of the tree to start the fire for next year’s yule log.
If you can’t burn a yule log, there is always, of course, the digitized version available on TV and any number of streaming services.
4. Hiding a pickle ornament in the tree
While this tradition isn’t as old, and it does seem to be making a comeback, I had never heard of it until a few years ago.
The history of this tradition seems to be tough to pin down. It’s often suggested it’s an old German tradition, which confuses many Germans who have never heard of such a thing.
The most plausible story being that Woolworth’s received a shipment of lovely German Christmas tree ornaments back in the late 1800s – among them glass pickles – and suddenly needed a way to move these things off the shelves.
And so Woolworth’s invented the story of the tradition of hiding a pickle ornament in your tree. The child who found the ornament first received a special prize – a chocolate bar or small toy.
No matter where it started, it’s fun, and that’s all that matters.
If the adults want to get in on the fun, you could hide a much smaller pickle ornament in the tree, in a harder to find location. The prize could be more adult-themed, such as a bottle of wine or fine cheese.
5. Appointing a Lord of Misrule
Me, me, me! I want to be the Lord of Misrule this Christmas!
You there, you have to spend the day wearing your shirt on backward. And you, you have to wear your mittens indoors all day. Ha, and at noon everyone has to sing Jingle Bells in a minor key. For dinner, we’re all going to have Lucky Charms cereal.
The tradition of assigning someone to be the Lord of Misrule dates back to medieval courts where the court jester was often appointed to be ‘mayor’ of the city at Christmastide.
It was the Lord of Misrule’s job to come up with silly things for everyone to do during the holiday.
You can see how easily something like this could get out of hand. In fact, a couple of British monarchs even banned the tradition while they sat on the throne.
Rather than appointing a Lord of Misrule over an entire town for the whole of the season, why not take turns appointing a family member to be Lord of Misrule for the day. If you have some serious tricksters in your family, perhaps setting up some ground rules beforehand might be a good idea.
Part of the tradition could be that the Lord of Misrule themselves has to wear a silly hat during their rule, like a court jester.
6. Singing Carols
While you’re out and about wassailing, why not stop and sing a Christmas carol or two? This is one of those traditions that when you bring it up, everyone says, “Ah, yeah, it’s a shame no one does that anymore.”
Well, let’s do it again.
It doesn’t have to be fancy or well-organized. You don’t even have to sing particularly well. Just grab some friends or family members who are game, bundle up well, and hit your neighborhood.
Knock on doors, and when they’re opened, break out into Silent Night or Jingle Bells. You’ll be making memories with your family and friends, as well as the people you sing to.
Having done this a couple of times over the years, I can say the first door is the hardest. But then your Grinchy little heart will grow three sizes, and you’ll be so flooded with Christmas spirit that you can’t wait to get to the next house.
7. Use Real Stockings
I don’t know about your family, but in ours, stockings are where it’s at. Christmas presents weren’t opened until everyone was up, but stockings were fair game if you woke up at, say 3:00 a.m., just itching to start celebrating.
It was always so much fun sneaking into the living room to grab your stocking (and see who else had already grabbed theirs) then tiptoeing back to bed. I loved rifling through my little pile of loot – chocolates, oranges, and tiny gifts of earrings, lip balm, or pencils.
The tradition of Christmas stockings came from children using their actual socks (or stockings) rather than a massive red felt one with white fake fur trim.
This year have each family member pick a favorite sock to hang up for Santa to fill.
The small size can be an opportunity to remind us of some important lessons that are often lacking this time of year.
If you really want to take this tradition back, you could fill the socks with fruit such as tangerines and little chocolate coins.
Just do Santa a favor and make sure it’s a clean sock.
Ah yes, another Christmas tradition that ended up getting banned because it led to criminal activity. Apparently, Christmas used to be pretty crazy centuries ago. In the words of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Not only is Christmas getting too commercial, but it’s also getting too dangerous.”
Mumming is another one of those traditions borrowed from either the pagans or the Romans.
Everyone would dress up in disguises that often included a mask and go about visiting friends and family to sing silly songs or create impromptu plays. The sillier, the better.
Naturally, you can see how a bunch of folks dressed in masks who had been, ahem, partying all evening could lead to some rather unruly behavior. So mumming is another tradition that fell out of favor, or in some cases, was even banned.
However, there are still mumming troupes around the world and a famous Mummers Day Parade in Philadelphia, PA, each New Year’s Day.
I think mumming would be a fun tradition to bring back as a family. You could all dress up with whatever you have on hand and put on a silly play in front of the Christmas tree. Or put the kids solely in charge to entertain the parents. Let them raid your closet for their costumes. Who knows, you may have a budding improv artist among you.
No matter what happens, it’s likely to be talked about at future holiday gatherings for years to come.
9. Poems with Presents
The Romans make yet another appearance on our list with the tradition of gifting a poem with your present. In celebrating the god Saturn during Saturnalia, it was tradition to give small gifts to one another. But you couldn’t just hand over a gift; no, it came with a handwritten poem too.
Perhaps you could attach a limerick with your gift tag or write a couple of lines of rhyming verse to go with a gift.
You could express heartfelt sentiments to a cherished loved one or keep your poems silly and absurd. In either case, it would make for a more memorable present.
If you aren’t a natural poet laureate but still want to get it in on the fun, consider choosing a poem from a poet you love and adding it to the package.
10. Popcorn and Cranberry Garlands
It’s kind of interesting to see how many of our Christmas traditions have no real traceable history. For instance, the tradition of making popcorn and cranberry garlands to hang on Christmas trees. There aren’t any clear-cut instances we can point to and say that’s where it all began.
However, the tradition likely began out of more modest times.
The Christmas tree is a German tradition, where it was decorated with fruit. When this tradition began catching on in the states, it was unlikely that families would decorate an entire tree with something as costly as fruit.
Popcorn is abundant and inexpensive; it makes a logical choice. And as for cranberries, the most reasonable explanation I can find is that they are harvested in late fall, making them a fruit that would have been plentiful around the time of Christmas. Plus, they last quite a while, and they offer a lovely pop of red.
Wherever this tradition came from, it’s not a bad one to bring back.
Pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch your favorite Christmas movies. Stringing popcorn is a practice in patience and dexterity; something small hands need to learn these days.
Even if you don’t manage a garland long enough to wrap around your tree, this simple garland looks great hung in windows or atop the fireplace mantle.
12. Hang Gifts on the Tree
I’m going to say something that may surprise you. Back in the day, most folks didn’t give each other huge gifts at Christmas. I know, shocking. Traditionally in the Victorian era, gifts went on the tree rather than under it.
This year consider confining your family gift-giving to items small enough to be tucked into the branches of the tree. I’m sure you could come up with something much more meaningful than an Amazon gift card with a little thought.
Even if it’s just one gift in the tree and the rest under it, it’s still a nice tradition to bring back. What a lovely way to make your tree even more festive.
There was always a box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers hung on the Christmas tree for each of us in our family.
13. Sleeping Under the Tree
Sleeping under the Christmas tree is another Christmas tradition that doesn’t seem to have a specific origin.
Perhaps Christmas Eve isn’t the best night to do this activity, but there are plenty of evenings to give it a try. Maybe Christmas night after all the presents have been opened would be the opportune time.
Have everyone drag their sleeping bags out and have a slumber party with the Christmas lights on all night. Those of the 40+ set may wish to add a camping pad under their sleeping bag or stick to the couch.
14. Christmas Goose instead of Turkey
Take a trip back to Charles Dickens’s Victorian Christmas and opt for a Christmas goose for dinner. After all, do you really want turkey again? We just had one in November, and the leftovers are finally gone.
For those who have never eaten goose before, it’s very different from chicken or turkey. It’s closer to red meat than poultry. It’s truly wonderful.
If you’ve never done so, I highly recommend cooking a goose for Christmas dinner, even if it’s just once.
When I was around ten years old, my dad roasted a goose for the two of us for Christmas dinner. He even made a plum sauce (en flambe!) to go over it. To this day, it’s still the most decadent Christmas dinner I’ve ever had.
And while I can barely remember what else we had with it, it’s still one of my favorite Christmas memories – seeing dad walking from the kitchen carrying this beautiful crispy brown bird covered in blue flames.
It was certainly the fanciest dinner our little log cabin ever saw.
15. Roasting Chestnuts
Another food-related tradition that seems to have fallen along the wayside is roasting chestnuts. While we sing plenty of songs about doing it, very few families actually have.
It was only a couple of Christmases ago that our family decided to give it a try to see what all the singing was about. I saw chestnuts in our local grocery store and thought, “Why not.” My two young boys weren’t all that impressed as chestnuts were dangerously close to being healthy. And if I remember correctly, I think I ended up eating most of them.
You’ll find chestnuts at farmer’s markets and local grocers starting in early November.
If you want to create a truly memorable experience, you can opt to go the way of most carols and roast your chestnuts over an open fire. Here’s a brief tutorial from Vindulge showing you how.
I hope this season finds you and yours hale and hearty. I’ll gladly raise a glass of wassail and toast to your continued good health. And I hope your family finds a fun new tradition or two this year.