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7 Strange Christmas Traditions

A few years ago, I wrote about strange Christmas traditions like Krampus, Caga Tia, the Caganer, Mari Lwyd, Zwarte Piet, the pickle ornament, the TV Yule Log, and Christmas in Japan (which involves several odd customs). Since then, I've uncovered a few more that may fall outside your experience.

1. Iceland: The Christmas Cat

Jólakötturinn is the Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. He might eat you! See, in many Icelandic families, those who finished all their work on time receive new clothes for Christmas; those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, their parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas, and they would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

2. Sweden: Donald Duck Cartoons

A custom doesn't have to be all that old to be traditional. In Sweden, every Christmas Eve, families gather around the TV at 3PM to watch Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul. In English, that's "Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas." We know it as the 1958 Disney presentation From All of Us to All of You, a collection of cartoons that, for the most part, have nothing to do with Christmas. The most popular is the one in which an Aracuan Bird bedevils Donald Duck. Many Swedes can recite the dubbed-in lines by heart. The tradition began in 1959, when Sweden had only a couple of TV channels and there were just enough homes with TVs for the Disney special to become a shared experience. Since then, any time the public TV channel considered not airing Kalle Anka, viewers rallied to have it restored to the schedule.

3. Finland: Visit a Cemetery

You may have a family feast on Christmas Eve, or sing Christmas carols at a community gathering, or drive around to see the lights. In Finland, the family is very likely to take a trip to a cemetery. The purpose is to light candles in remembrance of deceased relatives, but some folks without locally-buried kin visit cemeteries anyway to enjoy the candles. Many graveyards have a special place where candles can be placed in honor of people buried elsewhere. In Helsinki, around 75% of families visit a cemetery at Christmastime, usually on Christmas Eve, so authorities arrange for police to provide traffic control.

4. Latvia: Mummers

The tradition of mummers is associated with the winter solstice more than Christmas. It dates back to pagan times when people would try to employ magic to encourage the sun to return before daylight completely disappeared. In Britain, mummers perform small dramas about the struggle between the sun and the forces of winter -a tradition that survives to this day in some areas. In Latvia, Christmastime is still a solstice holiday, and is often celebrated from December 22nd through the 25th. Customs of a Latvian Christmas are usually traced to activities that encourage the return of the Sun Maiden. Latvian mummers are more like Halloween trick-or-treaters, going from house to house wearing masks, usually disguised as some kind of animal or the spirit of death. They play music and bestow blessings on the homes they visited, and are given food to eat.

5. Sweden: The Gävle Goat

The Yule goat is a Scandinavian tradition that varies over time and place. The goat brings gifts to children; the goat is a symbolic sacrifice; the goat is a prank that you sneak into a neighbor's yard. In the Swedish town of Gävle, the goat became an effigy made of straw, built in the town square every year since 1966. At 13 meters tall, the Gävle Goat towers over the townspeople. The very first straw goat in 1966 was mysteriously set on fire at midnight on New Year's Eve. Since then, the goat has been erected every year, and burned by unknown individuals about half of those years. Locals take sides, with some protecting the goat with schemes like soaking it in water, while others plot its demise. Yet others make bets on whether the goat will survive into the new year. Both results lead to publicity and increased tourism, which has led other Swedish town to put up their own straw Yule goats. The Gävle goat of 2011 didn't last all that long; it was burned down on December 2nd.

6. Iceland: Yule Lads

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are Icelandic trolls. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule cat. However, in the 20th century, culture creep brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure called Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. He was the carrot while the Yule Lads were the stick. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ...if they are good boys and girls. This gift-giving used to last for 13 days straight! That's because there are 13 Yule Lads, and they each have a name and distinct personality.

7. United States: Snap-Dragon

Snap-dragon (or flap-dragon) was a game in which people tried to snatch raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy. A player would then pop the raisins in the mouth to extinguish them! The game is played with the lights turned off, and a successful player will be seen with blue flames dripping from their hands and mouth. The game was mainly played in England, Canada, and the U.S. from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The custom of playing snap-dragon at Christmas or Twelfth Night died out because of the obvious danger, but survives here and there. Image by Flickr user Transaction Fraud.

These customs may seem strange to us, but when you think about it, some of our Christmas traditions are liable to be just as strange to someone from a non-English-speaking nation. A fat man who drinks Coca-Cola fits down a chimney? You give people cakes made of fruit that you know they'll never eat? People put blinking lights on their homes and sync them to pop songs? That's really strange!

See also: 8 Truly Strange Christmas Customs and 9 Holiday Characters From Around the World.

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Food
8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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