8 Old Holiday Traditions We Can't Believe Ever Existed


We like to think of the holidays as a time when we return to time-honored traditions, but the truth is that traditions change over the years. Ask your grandparents on Thanksgiving if they spent the day the same way you do now, and you may hear some surprising stories. They might have taken to the streets wearing masks, believe it or not. And if your elders immigrated from Europe, they might tell you about the Christmas Spider, who spread holiday cheer all over the world. Yeah.

And that's not all. Here are some of the craziest old holiday traditions we could find.


Think shopping is the weirdest thing anyone has ever done on Turkey Day? Even the newest holiday on the calendar has plenty of oddities in its past.

1. Pray All Day

You might spend the fourth Thursday in November watching football and eating, but the holiday's concept springs from Calvinist Thanksgivings, which were days set aside for nonstop prayer. These weren't annual events. They were not to be held on Sunday — which could be why we celebrate Thanksgiving on a weekday.

When the first national Thanksgiving was announced in 1777, the Continental Congress specified that no "recreation" was allowed; instead folks should devote the time off to "Confession of their manifold Sins."

2. Fast, Not Feast

Sometimes a Thanksgiving was set aside as a feast day, but other times for eating nothing at all. After the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of September of 1863 as "a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting for all the people of the nation." Later that year, Lincoln declared another Thanksgiving, during which grateful northerners fed turkey dinners to troops.

3. Masquerade

Going out to the mall on Thanksgiving Day is seen as breaking the tradition of spending it at home with family, but surprisingly, it was once popular to take to the streets on T-Day. Not to shop, but to show off your festive mask.

"The chief feature of the day was the street charivari," reads an 1899 New York Times article. Charivari? Pronounced "shivery," a charivari is a rowdy masked parade. Masks depicted everything from fictional characters to caricatures of ethnicities: "Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams …" There were also boys in drag.

4. Dressing Up as Native Americans

When I was a child, my kindergarten teacher set up a teepee in our classroom, and we donned headdresses and banged drums. Luckily, most schools have at least toned down this inaccurate and offensive cultural appropriation, and many schools have eliminated any trace of pilgrim and Native American costumes or craft projects.


Leaving veggies out for Santa's reindeer might seem like a strange modern tradition, but oh boy, old school traditions were so much weirder.

5. Santa's Sidekicks

In modern America, usually only benevolent Santa Claus surveilles child behavior. But in Europe, a tradition dating back hundreds of years gives St. Nick a darker counterpart, half-goat, half-man Krampus, who punishes children that don't make Santa's "nice" list. In the Netherlands even today, Santa arrives with a helper called Black Piet, who, despite growing protests and an obvious level of offensiveness, is a white person in blackface. Other European countries also have bizarre St. Nick helpers, including "The Whipping Father" in France.

6. Candles on the Tree

As if bringing a dead tree into your living room isn't enough of a fire hazard — the original twinkling holiday lights were flaming candles, and were all the rage in Germany in the 1600s.

Wasn't that dangerous? Oh yes. A Chicago hospital burned to the ground because of tree candles, and in 1908 insurance companies tried to ban them.

7. O Holy Fright

Folks in Eastern Europe have seen hard times — sometimes so hard that families could not afford to decorate the holiday tree. Not to worry! The Christmas spider will cover it with cobwebs, which ideally the magic of Christmas transforms into silver and gold tinsel by morning. It's not recorded whether children would leave a plate of dead bugs for the Christmas spider to snack on.

8. J-E-L-L- Oh Heck No

In the '50s and '60s, gelatin molds were all the rage, leading disturbing "festive" meal items such as the Vegetable and Tuna Jell-O Wreath. Then there's this 1956 "red" themed dinner menu that includes "salmon pudding." Yikes.

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


/** Fix admin settings safe to ignore showing on unauthenticated user **/