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8 Truly Strange Christmas Customs

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The holiday called Christmas is an amalgam of many winter holidays from around the world. The name is designated as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, although the date is not recorded in the Bible, and people at that time did not place particular important on birth dates. Scientists say the actual date was June 17th, 2BC because of the appearance of the star that beckoned the Magi. December 25th was set as the date for Christmas in the 4th century by Pope Julius I as an attempt to Christianize midwinter pagan holidays such as Solstice and Saturnalia. Customs such as bringing evergreens inside, eating fat-laden foods, and hanging lights are universal responses to the cold, dark winter season. Some of the stranger Christmas traditions are remnants of those older pagan holidays, and some have been changed over the centuries until their origins are hard to discern. Others were just made up to boost business!

1. Krampus

St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus is the weirdest Christmas tradition ever, but he is so well known and so well documented that his origins are beyond the scope of this particular post. As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. People dress as Krampus and roam the streets looking for someone to beat with a stick. Since it is also a night for drinking, the beatings probably don't hurt much. (Image by Flickr user salendron.)

2. Caga Tió

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In English, Caga Tió is "the pooping log". Really. The Catalan custom is still celebrated in Spain, where you can buy your own el Caga Tió. The log is hollowed out, with legs and a face added. You must "feed" him every day beginning on December 8th. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, put him in the fireplace and beat him with sticks until he poops out small candies, fruits, and nuts. When he is through, the final object dropped is a salt herring, a garlic bulb, or an onion. Oh yeah, there is a traditional song the family can sing to encourage the process.

poop log,
poop turrón,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
poop log!

3. Caganer

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Another Catalonian tradition is the Caganer, a Christmas statue found in nativity scenes in Andorra and parts of Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The scenes depict the entire town of Bethlehem, and the Caganer is usually tucked away in a corner, far from Mary and Joseph. The Caganer needs privacy, because he is defecating. There are quite a few explanations for this custom, but none have been confirmed as the original source. Caganers have been used for at least a couple hundred years. You can even buy Caganers that resemble modern-day celebrities. (Image by Flickr users clare_and_ben.)

4. The Pickle Ornament

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The story goes that when German families decorate the Christmas tree, the last ornament to be hung is the Christmas pickle -usually a blown glass ornament that may have been passed down through generations. It is tucked away in a hard-to-see spot (it is green, after all). The first child who finds the pickle on Christmas morning gets a special gift and good luck all the next year. The trouble with this legend is that people in Germany were unfamiliar with it. Glass tree ornaments were indeed made in Germany, in the shape of fruits and vegetables and other objects. These ornaments became very popular in America when F.W. Woolworth began importing them in the 1880s. An old German legend no doubt helped to sell more glass ornaments! (Image by Flickr user the queen of subtle.)

5. Kentucky Fried Chicken

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The celebration of Christmas in Asia usually involves imported western traditions, but in Japan those traditions have been shaped by commercial interests. The holiday places special emphasis on romantic love, so it's a day to spend with a sweetheart or spouse. Bakeries sell Christmas cakes as traditional sweetheart treats. And you might have to make reservations to get a table at KFC. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast food franchise let it be known that fried chicken is traditional for the Christmas feast. And so it is -in Japan. (Image by Flickr user sleepytako.)

6. Zwarte Piet

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Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter is Santa's helper in the Netherlands. Sinterklass arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas Day in a steamship with his slave Zwarte Piet, portrayed in public processions in several cities. Since about 1850, children who don't behave during the year were told that Black Peter might take them back to Spain, where Sinterklaas lives. The racist aspects of the custom have been downplayed in recent decades, and the tale of Black Peter now describes him as a chimney sweep instead of a slave, which explains the blackface. But charges of racism still follow Black Peter, as he is often portrayed with an Afro and exaggerated features.

7. TV Yule Log

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The Yule Log is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The Yule Log on TV is a relatively new tradition for those who have no fireplace to burn their own log. WPIX in New York has broadcast 24 hours of a burning fireplace on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since 1966. The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, but a carpet fire during the first filming made the mayor wary of a reshoot a few years later, so the loop seen now was filmed in California.

8. Mari Lwyd

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Mari Lwyd, an old midwinter custom in Wales, is a holdover from pagan celebrations before Christmas was introduced. Mari Lwyd means "gray mare" in English.

In its purest form (still to be seen at Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, every New Year's Day) the tradition involves the arrival of the horse and its party at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses. Then comes a battle of wits (known as pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song.

The horse in the above scenario is made of a horse's skull attached to a pole. The person operating the horse is concealed by sheets, and sometimes has a contraption to work the horses jaw! (Image by Flickr user arosmae.)

See Also...

8 Great TV Christmas Specials (But Not The Ones You're Probably Thinking)
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Is It True That No Two Snowflakes Are Alike?
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12 Things You Might Not Know About A Christmas Story (Even though you've seen it 90 times)
*
The Stories Behind 10 Famous Christmas Songs
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11 Notable Presidential Pardons

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Why 3 Man-Sized Cages Hang From a Medieval German Church Steeple
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ptwo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Visitors to St. Lambert’s church in Münster, Germany may notice something odd about the building’s facade. Three gleaming iron cages, 7 feet tall and a yard wide and deep, hang empty from the church spire. Once home to the mutilated bodies of three revolutionaries who shaped one of the strangest chapters in the Protestant Reformation, the cages have hung there for nearly 500 years. They remain on the spire as a testament to their former occupants’ experiment in religious utopia—and the tremors they sent through German religious and political life for years after their occupants' deaths.

MÜNSTER’S RADICAL ROOTS

In 1530, Münster was a divided city. Although technically self-governing, the Catholic Church vied with the city council for control of the town. The aristocrats who had owned the land and nearly everything on it for generations existed in sharp conflict with the peasants, craftsmen, and trade guilds that were beginning to threaten their economic dominance. Meanwhile, Germany was still recovering from a 1525 peasant uprising that didn’t have much of an effect on Münster, but frayed the nerves of the ruling class across the Holy Roman Empire. To make matters worse, Europe was also still reeling from the startling intensity of the Protestant Reformation, 13 years after Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses.

Against this fraught backdrop, an evangelical Protestant preacher named Bernhard Rothmann began preaching against Catholic doctrine and drew a large following in Münster, particularly among the peasants and the trade guilds. Alarmed at his threat to their dominance, the Catholic Church banned him from the pulpit. But in February 1532, a mob of his supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church—the main parish church in Münster—and installed Rothmann as its preacher.

That May, Franz von Waldeck was elected prince-bishop of Münster, becoming the highest-ranking Church official in town. As the little brother of the Count of Waldeck-Eisenberg, a minor aristocrat, young Franz had access to family money and military power. Rothmann’s Protestant rabble-rousing threatened to turn Münster against the Catholic Church, which would render the new prince-bishop's position powerless. Von Waldeck hired mercenary cavalry to blockade Münster until its citizens expelled Rothmann and his allies—but the city council, under pressure from Rothmann’s supporters, refused.

And the people of Münster struck back: In a surprise attack early on the morning of December 26, 600 armed townspeople, backed by 300 newly minted city soldiers, assailed von Waldeck at his council in nearby Telgte. They raided his residence, and captured several high-born hostages. But after a neighboring noble stepped in to mediate the conflict, von Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from Münster’s parish churches.

That caught the attention of a band of Dutch Anabaptists led by one Jan Matthijs, who for years had been persecuted for their faith and chased from town to town throughout the Low Countries. The Anabaptists believed in baptizing only adults, not children, marking them as radicals even among their fellow Protestants, who feared that unbaptized children who died before reaching adulthood would burn in hell—and who feared the upturning of social orders the Anabaptists represented. Four years before Münster’s religious toleration treaty, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had ordered that every Anabaptist in his territory “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”

Matthijs, a charismatic baker-turned-Anabaptist prophet, sent two of his acolytes to Münster in January 1534. When they arrived, Rothmann—who by then had become more radical and supported the idea of adult baptism—embraced them. The Anabaptists reportedly rebaptized 1400 people (20 percent of the city’s adult population) within a week of their arrival. Along the way, they spread Matthijs’s apocalyptic prophesy: Jesus Christ would return to Earth that Easter, and all Christians needed to prepare themselves for the imminent end of the world.

THE NEW JERUSALEM

An 1840 painting of Jan of Leiden baptizing a girl
An 1840 painting of Jan of Leiden baptizing a girl
Johann Karl Bähr, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

On February 11, 1534, the Münster city council granted full religious toleration to Anabaptists, who began referring to Münster as the “New Jerusalem.” They sent out messengers far and wide to recruit new believers to the city. As the month went on, armed city employees reportedly moved through the city warning those who refused adult baptism to flee, reportedly crying "Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!" When Matthijs arrived, he delivered a sermon calling for the execution of Catholics and Lutherans alike. He preached, "Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!" When the execution idea failed to fly, his advisors convinced him to settle for expelling the Catholics and Lutherans from the city.

More than 2000 Catholics and moderate Protestants poured out of Münster—and just as many Anabaptists streamed in from the countryside to replace them. By February 23, a new city council election gave the Anabaptists, led by Matthijs, full control of Münster. Watching these developments from outside the walls, Bishop von Waldeck prepared to besiege the city with a mercenary army in hopes of reestablishing Catholic control.

Münster simultaneously prepared to battle von Waldeck and to meet Jesus Christ. The citizens beefed up the city walls. They rounded up all residents who hadn’t yet been rebaptized and forced them to accept baptism or leave. They confiscated food and weapons from departing Catholics, and then, in March, the city council abolished private property altogether. That month, Matthijs also had all archives, documents, contracts, accounts, and ledgers destroyed in a Fight Club-style attempt to abolish all debt. "Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other," Rothmann preached.

Meanwhile, von Waldeck’s troops surrounded the city and the siege began.

DOOMSDAY POSTPONED

On April 5, 1534, Easter came—but Christ did not. With his apocalyptic prophecy shattered, Matthijs claimed to have a divine vision. He mounted a horse and sallied forth with a small entourage to personally break von Waldeck’s siege and free the city. But his plan failed miserably: Von Waldeck’s troops ran Matthijs through with a spear, and then put his head on a spike in front of the city gates for all of Münster to see. The Anabaptists’ prophet was dead.

To quell the city’s rising panic, Matthijs’s main lieutenant, a 25-year-old tailor named Jan of Leiden, gave a speech reinterpreting the apocalyptic prophesy and postponing doomsday. On April 8, he dissolved the elected city council and appointed 12 elders to run the city.

Münster became increasingly militarized: Armed bands of citizens lived communally near their posts by the city gates, and two church steeples were repurposed as platforms for cannons. Residents adhered to a regimented daily schedule, and were required to wear simple clothing to erase social distinctions.

But as the city transformed, it still faced threats from the outside. Von Waldeck launched a massive engineering project to drain the moat surrounding Münster and allow his troops to attack the city gates. He conscripted over 2000 farmers from the surrounding land to leave their spring planting aside and dig a drainage ditch under cover of night. With the moat drained, von Waldeck's cannons pummeled Münster's walls for four straight days. But when the prince-bishop finally attacked on May 25, the Anabaptists staved off his disorganized and reportedly drunk mercenaries.

In June, an Anabaptist woman named Hille Feicken hatched a plan to assassinate von Waldeck and break the siege. She was inspired by the Biblical character Judith, who during the siege of Bethulia seduced the attacking general Holofernes and beheaded him in his sleep. Early in the morning on June 16, Feicken snuck out of Münster to seduce von Waldeck—but unlike Judith, she was quickly discovered, captured, and executed.

Soon after Feicken’s death, Jan of Leiden announced his plans to legalize polygamy and make marriage mandatory for all women—even those who had living Catholic or Protestant husbands in exile. Those who refused to marry were imprisoned in church cloisters, where preachers attempted to reeducate them. Historians speculate that Jan of Leiden’s motives were partially demographic: At that point, there were 2000 adult men and over 5500 adult women in Münster. The unmarried women were not under the protection—or control—of a husband, who might prevent them from sneaking off like Hille Feicken did.

Rothmann defended Jan of Leiden's decision. "God wills to create something new on earth," he wrote. "Just as the women commonly have been lords and have had their own way, now among us he has subjected the women to the men, so that all of them, young as well as old, have to let themselves be ruled by the men according to the word of God."

The polygamy announcement drew major backlash. On the night of July 30, 1534, 47 conspirators, led by a blacksmith named Heinrich Mollenhecke, attempted to overthrow the city government. They managed to take Jan of Leiden prisoner and hole up in the city hall, but the majority of Münster didn’t rally to the conspirators’ cause. Loyalists surrounded the mutineers, forcing them to surrender and free Jan of Leiden.

Over the next four days, all 47 conspirators were shot or beheaded. The polygamy plan went forward, and every woman in Münster was married. (Jan of Leiden himself reportedly took as many as 16 wives over the next year, including Jan Matthijs’s widow.)

A NEW KING

Meanwhile, von Waldeck's siege continued. He launched yet another assault in August 1534, which the Anabaptists narrowly repelled. Afterward, a new Anabaptist prophet, a goldsmith named August Johann Dusentschuer, proclaimed that Jan of Leiden should rule as king. Jan of Leiden accepted the prophecy, adding that God had revealed to him that he was to be the new King David and rule until Jesus’s return to Earth. He replaced the Council of Elders with a royal court and began wearing a crown and carrying a scepter.

Over the winter, von Waldeck choked off all remaining routes in or out of Münster with walls and moats. The city ran out of grain and residents began slaughtering young cows for food. "Anyone who still has something must share with his brother," Jan of Leiden declared. But by April, facing a mounting famine, the king dismissed exhausted and hungry women, children, and old men from the city. About 1600 armed men remained within the walls.

As life inside of Münster became increasingly grim, Jan of Leiden promised his subjects that God would deliver them from the prince-bishop's besieging army. "God will smite them in their hearts, so that they will run away," he predicted. But by Easter, he clarified that he meant his promise of deliverance in a metaphorical, spiritual sense—not literally.

In May 1535, an Anabaptist carpenter named Heinrich Gresbeck tried to flee Münster, but was captured by von Waldeck’s troops. In exchange for his life, he agreed to help the besiegers take the city. On the night of June 25, he led 300 of von Waldeck’s soldiers into town through a poorly guarded city gate. The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster for hours, killing over 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered. They took Jan of Leiden, his viceroy Bernd Knipperdollinck, and another Anabaptist leader named Bernd Kretchtinck prisoner. Bernhard Rothmann, the upstart Protestant preacher who had stirred up the entire conflict from his pulpit at St. Lambert’s church, apparently died fighting, although his body was never found.

With von Waldeck's victory, events took an even more gruesome turn. On January 22, 1536, the prince-bishop gathered a crowd in front of city hall to see Jan of Leiden, Knipperdollinck, and Kretchtinck tortured and killed. Executioners ripped the flesh from their bodies with hot tongs for an hour before stabbing them each in the heart. Their bodies were bound into iron cages and then hoisted from the tower of St. Lambert’s church.

IN “MEMORY OF THEIR DEPARTED SOULS”

As he retook control of Münster, von Waldeck re-Catholicized the city, and from 1536 on he appointed the city council members himself. Citizens weren’t allowed to elect their own representatives again until 1554.

The Münster Rebellion also marked the end of the militant streak in Anabaptism. The Münster Anabaptists were universally condemned, and exaggerated accounts of their treachery have circulated until the present day. Although the religious movement continued for centuries—evolving into today’s Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites—no Anabaptist group would ever attempt to take and wield political power on that level again.

The bodies of the three Anabaptist leaders stayed in their cages for 50 years before St. Lambert’s removed them, prompting artists to draw pictures of ravens descending on the church tower to feast on stray bits of flesh. But the original cages remained, even after the tower from which they hung was demolished and replaced in the 1880s. The church repaired the cages, which had been damaged by rust, and strung them back up on the newly constructed tower.

When British bombs hit the church on November 18, 1944, the highest cage—Jan of Leiden’s—fell into the street, another fell into the organ loft, and the third remained dangling by a thread. When the church rebuilt the tower four years later, workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting on their sturdy construction.

In 1987, as a small act of reconciliation, the church installed a small yellow bulb in each cage to burn from dusk until dawn each night “in memory of their departed souls.”

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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