10 Lost or Little-Known Winter Holiday Traditions

holiday traditions

Have you heard of these 10 forgotten, obscure or strictly regional holiday traditions?

Some winter holiday traditions are just everywhere, arriving earlier and earlier each fall. You couldn’t forget them if you tried: the filling of stores with decorations, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas trees, menorahs or eating way too much food with your family (or chosen family). We don’t ever imagine holidays without these things. But what about those other traditions — the ones that didn’t make it and faded into obscurity? Or the ones that are regional? Or little-known? Here are just a few of those, from around the United States.

Ragamuffin Day

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Giving trick or treat a run for its money, this forgotten New York City–specific holiday tradition took place on Thanksgiving. On Ragamuffin Day, children would dress up in hobo costumes and go door to door asking those who opened if they had any Thanksgiving treats for them. Usual treats consisted of apples, pennies and candy. The holiday tradition had all but disappeared by the 1930s in Manhattan, where it was considered a nuisance, but it hung on for many more years in the outer boroughs.

Telling Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve

holiday traditionsA Christmas Carol, 1938. Via MGM/Getty Images

I’m sure you’ve heard the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” a million and one times, but have you ever listened closely to the lyrics and wondered why the hell they promise “There’ll be scary ghost stories”? The obvious answer is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s only one ghost story, not multiple, as promised in that song. It turns out, the lyrics refer to a lost Victorian holiday tradition. On Christmas Eve, whenever a handful of people sat around a fire, they would entertain each other with real-life stories of specters they’d seen during the past year. Not quite sure how that got everyone in the gift-giving spirit, but the tradition lasted for some time before its ghostlike disappearance.

Second Christmas

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Celebrated in the Netherlands and in the US by many Amish people, Second Christmas takes place on December 26. It is a time for gift giving, visiting family (often, for nuclear families, one partner’s extended family will be visited on the first day and the other’s on the second) and eating large meals. Basically, it’s Christmas. But two days. And who doesn’t want two days of Christmas?

Dairy on Chanukkah

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Everybody knows about dreidels, menorahs and latkes. But do you know why it’s customary to eat dairy on Chanukkah? In the noncanonical Old Testament Book of Judith, a brave widow feeds cheese to an enemy general, which makes him thirsty. Since the obvious response to thirst is wine drinking, he gets very drunk, and this gives brave and spunky Judith the opportunity to cut off his head. In some traditions, dairy is still eaten on Chanukkah to commemorate her.

The Peppermint Pig

holiday traditionsMike Fitzgerald making peppermint pigs at his Saratoga Sweets store in Halfmoon, New York. AP Photo/Mike Groll

This holiday tradition originated in Saratoga Springs, New York. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve, confectioners would work long into the night to create these once-a-year hard candy pigs. On Christmas Day, these pigs would be passed around and pieces would be broken off with a hammer. As this happened, the person holding the pig would share a story of good fortune in hopes of continued good fortune in the year to come. A confectioner in Saratoga Springs revived the pig a few years back, but it remains a relatively little-known holiday tradition.

Krampus

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Everyone knows Santa Claus came from Saint Nicholas, a happy, kind man who brings gifts to all the good children. But did you ever consider what he does with the naughty children on the list? Well, in Austro-Bavarian folklore, he doesn’t bring them coal. He turns them over to Krampus.

This chain-carrying, cloven-hoofed, goat-demon also carries a bag or a basket to place naughty little children in. He eats them, drowns them or takes them to hell. Krampus has been used to frighten children into good behavior for many, many years.

Calling on New Year’s Day

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In 19th-century New York City, New Year’s Day wasn’t when you hauled your Christmas tree and New Year’s party favors to the curb for trash pickup. High-society men went to visit women they hoped to court, literally leaving behind their calling cards (not a euphemism!). Women, in turn, tried to collect as many cards as they could during the day, luring potential suitors with delicious food and other charms at their disposal. If you didn’t visit someone, it could be taken as a slight — though it might have simply meant you were exhausted, trying to see everyone you knew in one cold day.

Sweetest Day

holiday traditionsPhoto by H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile via Getty Images

We talk about Hallmark holidays, but this romantic holiday celebrated in the Midwest on the third Saturday in October may literally have been started by confectioners to give their companies a sales boost. It is most heavily celebrated in Cleveland and Detroit and is, like Valentine’s Day, associated with heart-shaped boxes of candies and romantic deeds.

Three Kings’ Day (Dia de Los Reyes)

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The last of the 12 days of Christmas is January 6, which is also the day many Latin American Christians celebrate this holiday commemorating the three wise men who came to honor the baby Jesus. Various traditions include Kings’ Bread (a tradition not unlike a New Orleans’ King Cake, part of its Mardi Gras season celebrations, where a baby is hidden in the pastry), leaving shoes outside doors so that the three kings can leave gifts in them, and leaving out a box of grass for the kings’ camels to dine on.

Old Christmas

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Also celebrated on January 6, this holiday tradition allegedly commemorates the time when the changes of England’s Calendar Act of 1751 didn’t make it to the people living in the colonies in the outer banks of North Carolina in time, and they blithely kept celebrating the holidays on their original dates for years and years. Old Christmas traditions include girls hiding under the dinner table quietly waiting for ghosts (who look like their future husbands) to appear, and the arrival of Old Buck, a wild bull that inseminated all the local domestic cows and was eventually shot by a local farmer. In modern times (1970s), the celebration was viewed as a place to get into a drunken brawl, but locals have kept up traditions in ways visitors simply looking for a drunken night can’t understand. end

What little-known holiday traditions do you celebrate?

 

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  • Horvendile

    My father told me about the Thanksgiving one. The way he out it, when he was a kid they did what we do on Halloween on Thanksgiving. I never heard anyone else talk about it. He grew up in Astoria, part of Queens. He’d have done it in the 20s.