Christmas is a holiday that leans more traditional than trendy. There’s something comforting about following the same customs that mom and dad did, whether it means having the same candy in your stocking or visiting the same amazing holiday light displays. But some once-treasured holiday traditions have slipped out of modern usage for many — even those a little too obsessed with Christmas.
Not all of these traditions have disappeared completely — maybe you still hang mistletoe or burn a yule log. But for many, these traditions are no longer a regular part of the winter holiday — if they ever were. Travel through the past and you may find yourself incorporating some of these cherished ideas into your modern celebration.
Surprise your neighbors by showing up at their door with a friendly group singing Christmas carols. Kids especially love to participate in a musical medley. This joyous tradition is even easier thanks to printers, which allow everyone to grab a lyrics sheet before heading out to share some songs from your favorite Christmas movies. (Those 12 days of Christmas get tough to remember once you get past the “five golden rings.”)
Kissing under the mistletoe is an old tradition that’s referenced in numerous songs and stories. But hanging the pretty little plant over the doorway and smooching under its berries has faded from many people’s memories. Just remember your holiday etiquette: Those kisses need to be consensual.
You know the “12 Days of Christmas” song, but do you know the meaning? The 12 days begin on Christmas Day and run through Jan. 6, which marks the Feast of the Epiphany. This is when Western Christian churches mark as the day the Three Kings visited newborn baby Jesus. There are numerous ways to celebrate this period. Some people open a small gift every day, while others choose a special family winter activity (sledding, caroling, snowmen-making) each day to keep the special season going.
A bright green pickle seems like an odd choice for a Christmas tree ornament, but it’s a really big dill. Hang the pickle ornament (usually glass, though in a house of toddlers or pets you may want to look for cloth) somewhere on your tree. The color and shape help it blend in with the tree’s branches, so it’s not easy to spot. On Christmas morning, the first one to find the pickle gets an extra gift — or, if you prefer a less materialistic reward, a year of good luck.
Twelfth Night is more than just the name of a William Shakespeare play. It’s the last day of Christmas, also known as Epiphany, celebrated on Jan. 6 and marking the Three Kings’ visit and gifts to baby Jesus. Bake a cake for this holiday and hide three dried beans (or other trinkets, such as plastic crowns) inside. Those who find a treasure in their cake slice are crowned one of the kings or queens for the night. Many online recipes suggest a fruitcake, but pick whichever flavor you favor.
If you live where it gets cold and snowy at Christmas, it’s easy to understand the importance of a blazing fire. To celebrate with a yule log, choose a large block of wood, and if you like, deck it out with pinecones, dried berries and cinnamon sticks. Some families like to each write down a wish, keeping it secret from the others, and tuck the wish into the log to burn up, in hopes it will come true. And if you don’t have a fireplace, streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video often offer virtual versions as Christmas draws near.
Want a tastier version of the yule log tradition? Channel your inner Martha Stewart and bake one. A buche de Noel, or yule log, is somewhat like a jelly roll made with chocolate cake and decorated with everything from meringue mushrooms to real berries. This yule log is way too delicious to burn.
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Borrow some inspiration from the Brits and buy some Christmas crackers for your holiday celebration. These wrapped cardboard cylinders are shared between two friends, each pulling on one end like a wishbone until they loudly pop open, spilling out small treasures. Traditionally, there’s a written motto or joke, a paper crown or hat, and some form of tiny toy or ornament. You can buy Christmas crackers online, or you might spot them in a gift or gourmet store.
Americans associate the phrase “plum pudding” with Christmas, but many Yanks have never tried it. To change that this year, you can buy or make your own plum pudding, which is a rounded dessert crammed full of dried fruit, steamed, and often served with a brandy sauce or custard. For a full-on magical spectacle, some cooks douse the plum pudding with brandy and set it alight just as they bring it to the table, as was famously done in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” (Just have that fire extinguisher handy.)
What’s around the bottom of your Christmas tree? A simple tree skirt and a pile of gifts? Maybe a Nativity set? There’s another track you could go down: In some families, it’s traditional to set up a model train to circle the Christmas tree. The constantly chugging train can be simple and inexpensive, or as elaborate as the model-railroad buff in your family wants. It brings a hypnotizing and old-fashioned element to your living room or den. And if you have kids, cats or dogs, you’ll delight in watching them watch the train.
Sure, maybe you wrap your tree with tinsel or a beaded garland. But in grandma’s day, those decorations were homemade and edible. Stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread or fishing line creates a colorful and charming decoration for anyone’s tree.
Many households count down to Christmas with an Advent calendar, whether homemade or a store-bought version, some holding chocolate, toys or other treats inside each day’s small window. You can also tackle that countdown with a simple but charming paper garland. Making one couldn’t be simpler — cut out strips of colorful or holiday-themed paper and staple them together in interlocking rings. Hang a 24-ring garland on your mantel on Dec. 1 and remove one ring every day for a very visible reminder of how many days are left until Christmas.
Snuggle a bright orange in the toe of everyone’s Christmas stocking this year. Some say the orange stands in for the gold coins Saint Nicholas gifted three poor young women in a famed Christmas legend. But even less than a century ago, oranges were a rare tropical treat for those who lived far from Florida. Oranges are easy to come by today, but just for a few minutes on Christmas, they can remind us of how thankful our ancestors would be for the gifts we take for granted.
The feast day of St. Nicholas is celebrated on Dec. 6 each year, honoring the Christian saint whose habit of secret gift-giving inspired Santa Claus. It’s marked in different ways in different countries, but one common way to mark it is for children to set out a pair of shoes when they go to bed the night before. When they wake, the shoes are filled with candy and treats.
Halloween may be known for its ghost stories, but it’s certainly not a taboo topic for Christmas, either. A mostly forgotten Christmas tradition encouraged families to gather around a fire on Christmas Eve and tell each other spooky tales. And why not? After all, ghosts play a prominent role in one of our classic Christmas tales, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The tales don’t have to be Christmas-themed, and they sure don’t have to be gory, but there’s something about winter and its dark early nights that lends itself to the scary and the startling.
Near the end of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge promises Bob Cratchit he’ll raise his salary and discuss other ways to help his family while the two men share “a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop.” A what now? Don’t let the name fool you: A smoking bishop isn’t a man of the cloth who enjoys puffing on a pipe. Instead, it’s a mulled red wine mixture, served warm, and often incorporating oranges, grapefruits and cloves. The name’s origin is lost to history, but some claim it comes from the drink being served in a fancy bowl that resembles a bishop’s miter, a liturgical headdress.
A Christmas tree makes the house magical, and a charming old tradition is to spend at least one night sleeping under its dazzling boughs. Maybe not Christmas Eve itself — Santa needs a little privacy to assemble and deposit those presents — but try it out on Christmas night if you wish, or earlier in the month. Some like to snuggle under the tree the very first night that it’s up and decorated to start off the season.
“Wassail” is both a beverage and an action. The word can refer to caroling (as in the song lyrics, “here we come a-wassailing”), or simply to raising a glass and toasting to someone’s health. Or “wassail” can refer to the beverage in that glass — a mulled hot cider with spices. It’s somewhat like the smoking bishop but with a cider base instead of wine, which means it can be served as a family-friendly beverage. (But if you choose to spike yours for an adult audience, that’s fine too.)
There’s a lovely holiday tale about how animals are given the gift of speech for only one brief moment a year, at midnight on Christmas. It stems from the belief that the animals in the stable where Jesus was born were so struck by the savior’s birth that they fell to their knees and briefly could speak in human language. If you’re able to stay up until midnight, you might want to hover close to your household dog or cat.
The traditional Christmas tune “Jingle Bells” tells of “dashing through the snow,” and “laughing all the way” on a sleigh ride. But have you ever really heard those “bells on bobtails ring” in person? If you’re lucky enough to live in a snowy area, check out ranches, stables and other resorts near you — many offer old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh rides, sometimes complete with cookies and cocoa. If a sleigh ride is too chilly for your liking, there are plenty of great holiday train rides that are chugging with spirit.
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