15 Holiday Traditions We Need to Bring Back

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December is full of amazing traditions and festivities, but many wonderful holiday customs have faded into near-obscurity. These fifteen examples deserve a comeback. 

1. Decorate With Rose Petals

Ease up on the poinsettias this year and do as the Colonial Virginians did—spruce up your home with fragrant roses and lavender during the holiday season. It gives a nice floral alternative to the amazing holiday aromas of evergreen and gingerbread.

2. Have a Child Run The Party 

Role-reversal was a key component in the ancient Roman holiday called “Saturnalia.” Families would elect somebody of relatively low status—usually a child—as their “princeps” (or “leader”), who’d preside over the festivities. This may be the year that your pre-teen is ready to be promoted to party planner.

3. Humble Pie 

Also known as ‘umble pie, this hearty dish became a Christmas staple during the 1600s. A deer’s “humbles”—i.e., its heart, liver, brains, and similarly neglected organs—were the entrée’s namesake ingredients. You may want to move this one lower on your holiday to-do list than the rose petals. 

4. White Tie New Year’s Eve Parties

As they greeted each approaching New Year, well-to-do Gilded Age households commonly threw swanky get-togethers. For the gentlemen, white ties and waistcoats were deemed standard attire, while ladies sported corseted evening gowns.

5. Hot Cockles

Flirtation was often a fun side effect of this pre-Victorian holiday game. The rules are straightforward: One blindfolded player kneels and rests his or her head in somebody’s lap. Another participant then lightly smacks the kneeler’s backside, and the blindfolded party would have to guess who did it. 

6. Ceramic Tipping Boxes 

For centuries, Brits would present their servants and apprentices with ceramic boxes that contained an annual holiday bonus on the day after Christmas. While Boxing Day remains on the calendar in many countries, the boxes themselves are due for a comeback.

7. Alphabetical Feasts

The Brumalia was a Greco-Roman festival that stretched from November 24 to December 17, and each of the 24 days was assigned a specific Greek letter. A celebrant would honor his or her friends with individual banquets hosted on the days that matched the first letters of their names. The English alphabet would require a couple of extra days, but we’re sure your friend Xavier wouldn’t mind being the center of attention for a day.

8. Redding the House

Hogmanay—Scotland’s traditional New Year’s festival—historically involved cleaning (or “redding”) houses before midnight fell on December 31. Clearing out your fireplace held particular significance because the reading of its ashes (much like reading tea leaves) could tell you what to expect from the coming year.

9. Presents with Poems

Here’s another neat Saturnalia practice: When giving gifts to friends and loved ones in observance of this holiday, some Romans customarily included slips of paper upon which seasonal poems were written. Fun poetry makes modern “To/From” tags seem boring by comparison.

10. Skipping Laundry Day 

During the 19th century, the British considered it bad luck to do laundry on New Year’s Day. Many believed doing so could cause a death (or “washing-out”) in the family, while others were probably just happy to give the clothesline a day off.

11. Shoe the Mare 

After Christmas dinner, Elizabethans enjoyed this athletic game, which featured one barefooted family member running about like an unruly steed. Everyone else tried to catch and “shoe” (albeit with human footgear) the runner. 

12. 12 Days of Mince Pies 

For good luck, Medieval Europeans would enjoy a hearty minced meat pie, spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, on each of the 12 days of Christmas (December 25-January 6). Yum! 

13. Yule Mumming 

Why should Halloween get all the scares? On Christmas Eve, Scandinavian youngsters used to grab their spookiest masks and frighten unsuspecting neighbors while acting like ghosts. This would certainly spice up lackluster office parties.

14. Cake Tossing 

Chucking a perfectly good cake against a door sounds like an awful waste of delicious sweets, but heads-of-households in the 1890s felt that doing so would bring a year without hunger.

15. Wassailing 


“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green…” Have you ever sung this carol and found yourself wondering what the heck “wassailing” is? Come Christmastime in the 1600s, Englishmen would prepare huge bowls of a hot, cider-based drink and walk from door-to-door offering cupfuls (sometimes in exchange for cash).

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

The Hottest Star Wars Toy for Christmas in 1977 Was an Empty Box

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iStock/Sadeugra

It's hard to imagine a child's face lighting up at the sight of an empty cardboard box staring back at them from under the Christmas tree. But in 1977, young Jedis-in-training were so hungry for anything Star Wars-related that even an I.O.U. was something to get excited about.

When George Lucas's intergalactic gamble first hit screens in May 1977, no one knew quite what to expect—especially the film's toy-making partner, Kenner. Instead of flooding the market with action figures and dolls for a movie that could very well end up being a flop, the company decided not to manufacture any toys right away. Unfortunately, there wasn't just a demand for Star Wars toys that year; there was an outright fever that took the company completely by surprise. And with Christmas just a few short months away, the ill-prepared Kenner needed to act—fast.

Realizing it would be impossible to get a full line of Star Wars toys manufactured in time to meet the needs of the holiday season, a Kenner executive named Bernard Loomis knew he had to improvise. Instead of simply releasing a proper toyline in 1978 and missing out on the Christmas rush, Loomis came up with what is now known as the "Early Bird Certificate Package" (or more colloquially as the "Empty Box Campaign") to satisfy this sudden, rabid fan base.

Basically, parents would go to their local toy store and pay $7.99 for a thin cardboard package, about the size of a manila envelope, with painted renderings of the proposed 12-figure Star Wars toyline that Kenner was promising to release in the months ahead. The cardboard kit could be turned into a display diorama for all the figures, which—at that point—only existed in theory. And since the word "diorama" isn't quite enough to satisfy a kid on Christmas morning, the kit also contained the all-important mail-in certificate promising the recipient would get the company's first four figures—Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca—delivered right to their homes between February and June 1978.

Kenner limited the supply of this glorified pre-order campaign to 500,000 kits, none of which were to be sold after December 31, 1977 in order to really manipulate the holiday market.

In an attempt to soften the blow of what was essentially nothing but a bunch of cardboard under the tree, Kenner sweetened the pot by including some stickers and a Star Wars Fan Club membership card. After months of waiting, kids everywhere would come home from school and be greeted by their delayed Christmas gift: four figures, along with foot pegs to fit them into their display stand. Eventually the entire first line of Star Wars toys came out in 1978 and could be purchased in stores, whether you mailed in a certificate or not.

From 1978 to 1985, Kenner never again doubted the power of the Star Wars toy line. In that time, the company released a robust roster of more than 100 different action figures based on the film series, scraping the bottom of the barrel of Lucas lore along the way with obscurities like Dengar and General Madine. The company went from having no toys on the shelf in 1977 to having every side character, prop, and vehicle recreated in plastic in just a few years.

Nowadays, intact Early Bird Kits go for big money on the collector's market, especially if they still include the original certificate kids were supposed to mail back (prices in the $4000 to $8000 range are pretty standard). But the biggest winner of this whole stunt, as usual, was George Lucas.

When signing on to direct Star Wars at 20th Century Fox, Lucas agreed to work for just $150,000, as opposed to the $500,000 he was set to earn. In exchange for the pay cut, the director asked for two things: The rights to any sequels to the movie and the rights to all the merchandise, including the toys. Believing Star Wars to be just another science fiction movie, Fox happily agreed to the reduced salary. That empty box under countless Christmas trees was the start of what would become Lucas's $20 billion merchandising empire.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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