Conical Hats

The pointy headwear for eccentrics, geniuses, deities, and dullards.

Some of the oldest conical hats come from Egypt in the form of the hedjet.

Egypt

Some of the oldest conical headwear come from ancient Egypt. The Pharaohs and their deities wore a variety of headdress crowns (the hedjet, the deshret, the pschent) depending on the individual and the era. These tall conical crowns were of religious significance, thought to connect the pharaohs to the gods, with the hedjet being the most conical of the group appearing between 3200 BCE to 3100 BCE. 

We only know of these crowns through Egyptian art because none of them have been found, suggesting they were either handed down from ruler to ruler (so there aren’t many of them to be found) and or they were made with perishable materials.

The golden hats are the oldest known European conical hats. The decorative markings along the cone is coded calendar information.

Golden hats of Central Europe

The golden hats of central Europe are four tall conical hats made of gold from the Bronze Age originating sometime between 1400 BCE to 800 BCE. It’s unknown exactly who made them but it’s most likely people of the Tumulus or Urnfield cultures (as the hats are in the right area, time, and styling as other artifacts from these groups).

As to what purpose they served the hats were most likely religious for high-status individuals but nobody is certain. They vary in height but the line & ring ornamentation along the cone portion of each hat is thought to be lunisolar calendrical information, documenting a skilled understanding of the sun & moon’s cycles. 

Similar hats (although not so tall) have been found in Ireland and Spain, which probably made their way there by Urnfield people or the Celts. 

The pileus of Greece eventually made its way to Rome where it later transformed into the Phrygian cap.

Greece & Rome

The ancient Greeks had the pileus, which was a soft rounded conical hat made of felt or leather. Unlike other conical hats of the ancient world it wasn’t associated with religion and instead was a hat of the common people. It’s estimated to have been worn between 800 BCE and 300 BCE with a bronze helmet version, looking not unlike the top of a bullet, having been introduced around 500 BCE.

The Romans, always borrowing from the Greeks, also had the pileus but it wasn’t worn in the same way. When a Roman slave was to be freed they participated in a ceremony where their head was shaved and a pileus hat was placed on their head. This hat became a symbol of freedom & liberty which later morphed into the Phrygian cap and became a symbol of liberty particularly during the French and American revolutions.

The mitre worn by Christian bishops got its name from Judaism but its design from Roman judges.

The Mitre of Christianity

Back to religion however, ancient Jewish priests had a variety of headwear depending on their role. Common priests wore a conical hat known as a migbahat. The High Priest however wore mitznefet (aka mitre) which was more of a turban. 

From this word “mitre” we get the Christian pointed cap of the same name worn by bishops. The tails (aka the lappets) in the back are said to have come from ancient Greek olympic athletes who would wear ribbons from a band around their head. Beyond the name however the main body of the cap is only speculatively associated with the turban of Jewish High Priests.

As Catholicism spread throughout the Roman Empire local bishops took on additional authority. In matters of law the thinking was that Christians should be judged by other Christians and so bishops could serve as judges in legal disputes between Christians. Judges in the Roman Empire wore certain vestments including conical hats, which led to bishops wearing similar hats that became the pointed mitre of the Catholic Church.

Mexico

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl went from being a feathered serpent to being a man around 1200 CE, which is also when he started wearing a conical hat.

Conical hats also appear in Aztec culture. The great god Quetzalcoatl was the god of wind, life, priests, knowledge, calendars, he taught humans a variety of skills, and more. His name comes from the Nahuatl for “feathered serpent” which is how he was represented until around 1200 CE when he began to be depicted as a man wearing a tall conical hat. 

Quetzalcoatl’s conical hat was made with ocelot or jaguar skin. We also see conical caps worn by the mythical Aztec prince Copilli as well as other figures including some warrior priests.

In the Middle Ages, European Jewish men wore conical hats (at first by choice, but then by law).

Jewish Hats

During the Middle Ages, European Jewish men wore a pointed cone-shaped hat later called a “Jewish hat” or “Judenhut”. This hat, originally worn by choice, soon became required by regional laws to distinguish Jews from Christians. For example the Fourth Council of the Lateran of 1215 required Jews and Muslims to be distinguishable by their clothing. A 1267 provision passed in Breslau (in modern day Poland) required Jews to wear “the horned hat”. In the same year the Council of Vienne made the hat required in Vienna. In 1555 Pope Paul IV ordered the hat to be yellow and worn in all Papal States.

The exact design of the hat varied. Looking at paintings and illustrations some look soft, some hard, some are pointed at the top while others have a circular bobble at the top. They are seen in various colors with some looking more like metal helmets than hats. 

This Jewish hat (as well as the hats of John Duns Scotus followers, “Dunce caps”) later served as the inspiration for the funnels worn by people & creatures in the works of 15th century Dutch artist (and Father of Surrealism) Hieronymus Bosch. Absurd strange characters can be seen throughout Bosh’s paintings wearing metal funnels marking them as fools, charlatans, and sinners.

The hennin and tantour were similar conical hats for women, the hennin in Europe and the tantour in the Middle East.

Hennins and Tantours

The hennin is the conical hat worn by women of nobility in the courts of England and France during the 15th century. It’s the iconic fairy tale princess hat that is tilted back with a thin veil (a cointoise) worn dangling from the back. Today the term “hennin” is a bit of a catch-all for a variety of headwear worn by women of the time, including the double horned or heart shaped style.

The tantour is similar to the hennin, a tall conical hat worn by women, but was worn in the Middle East especially in Lebanon. The height and materials used to make a tantour reflected the wealth of its owner, with precious metals & jewels being used to make the most extravagant hats which could be as tall as thirty inches. A tantour would have been presented to a woman on her wedding day, and thus only worn by married women.

When the tantour was created is unknown with some saying it existed during the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, others saying the design may have been introduced to the area from Europeans during the crusades. Either way it remained popular long after the hennin. The tantour was still being worn by Lebanese women into the early 19th century.

The hat we think of as a witch hat has its origins with the Quakers.

Witch Hats

The Religious Society of Friends (aka the Quakers) was founded in the mid 1600s. Founder George Fox had lived through the English Civil War and came out changed (similar to Thomas Hobbes, one half of the namesake for Calvin & Hobbes). Quakers preached that you could have a direct relationship with God, without a priest. They refused to pay taxes, they refused to serve in the military, they believed in racial and gender equality, and more. All of this was seen as both a religious and a financial threat to the crown and to the Church of England and as such the Quakers were persecuted.

At the same time there was a fashion trend of tall black conical hats. By the end of the century the hat was going out of style but it became strongly associated with Quaker women who continued to wear them. These women were independent, vocal, and and didn’t conform to the gender role of 17th century English women. The style and message of the Quakers made them outsiders in English society. While Quaker men were persecuted, Quaker women bore the greater share of the attacks. Many of the insults & accusations hurled at these women were incredibly similar to the ones that had been used towards women suspected of witchcraft. 

Soon Quaker women and witches were thought of as nearly the same and it became visual short-hand to represent a witch using the general look of a Quaker woman (pointed hat and all). This is why English witches are represented wearing the “witch hat” that we think of today. Interestingly by the early to mid 18th century Quaker women underwent a change of fashion, abandoning their pointed hats for caps. The Enlightenment helped to end some of the religious oppression & superstitious thinking of the past, the result of which was that witches went from something to be feared to amusing folk characters (complete with pointed black hats).

The Spanish capirote began as a punishment during the Inquisition, then became a symbol of penitence during Easter, but also influenced the style of the Ku Klux Klan.

the Capirote and the Klan

During the 15th century any man or woman who ran a foul of the Catholic Church (via the Inquisition) was forced to wear a conical hat (the capirote) in public as a form of humiliating punishment. Eventually the Inquisition punishments changed but the capirote remained. The hat’s new life was in being worn by penitent Catholics during Holy Week leading up to Easter. The point of the cap is thought to bring the wearer closer to heaven. The capirote eventually gained a full hood and, along with ornate robes, hides the wearer’s identity during Holy Week processions. 

Unfortunately the design of the capirote was also adopted by the Ku Klux Klan, but not initially. To hide their identities Klan members originally wore a variety of folk masks and costumes. This lack of uniform also helped hide the entire organization, allowing them to deny there was a Klan at all since every attack looked different. The 1905 book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon was the first to represent the Klan in white robes & hoods, but with spiked tops. It wasn’t until D.W. Griffith adapted the book into the 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation that the Klan got the capirote style hoods that we associate with them today. Later the Klan would mythologize their style claiming they were dressing as the ghosts of confederate soldiers, but in reality it was chance and the influence of Hollywood that helped this confederacy of dunces.

The dunce cap was originally worn by followers of gifted theologian John Duns Scotus, but came to symbolize being slow witted.

the Dunce cap

Perhaps the most famous conical hat of them all, the dunce cap actually started its life as a sign of intelligence. John Duns Scotus was a 13th century Scottish theologian, philosopher, Franciscan priest, and all around great thinker. Among other arguments he used logic to explain why God was metaphysical as opposed to a man in robes sitting in the sky. He developed devotees, nicknamed “Dunsmen”, who followed both his logic and his proclivity towards wearing a conical pointed hat.

Scotus felt that the cone shape of the hat would work like a reverse funnel, directing wisdom from the heavens towards his brain. This cone shaped hat became a sign of intelligence … until the theological tide turned in the 16th century. Renaissance humanist thinking turned away from Scotus’s logic and the hat of the dunsmen lost its cache, becoming a source of ridicule and a sign of foolishness.

Over the centuries a dunce (the spelling changed over time) became a term for a slow-witted person especially for unsuccessful children in school. As early as 1624 there was the “dunce-table”, a place where slow or disruptive children were placed away from others. Eventually sitting at a table was replaced with wearing a pointed dunce cap as a form of public humiliation (akin to the capirote worn as humiliation during the Inquisition). The heyday for the dunce cap was the Victorian era into the early 20th century, ending in the 1950s. Even though it’s no longer used as a form of discipline the dunce cap still remains a symbol of stupidity, even though it once represented the greatest of intelligence.

Learn more about the Golden Hats.

Abby Cox does a really great job discussing the origins of the witch hat.

Whoopee Caps

The fun second life of fedoras.

The fedora hat was created sometime in the late 19th century. Its name comes from the title of the 1882 play Fédora, which starred Sarah Bernhardt. Interestingly, because of Bernhardt the hat was originally popular with women, only later becoming a staple of men’s fashion.

By the early 20th century, a time when basically all adults wore hats, the fedora was thee hat for men. Its popularity lasted up until the middle of the century when it faded out (for example President Kennedy famously broke with tradition and tended to not wear hats, unlike his predecessors). But with so many men were wearing so many fedoras, many of these hats took on second lives as hand-me-downs.

Bruised and battered fedoras found a second life as whoopee caps.

Jughead

As fathers gave their sons their beat up old fedoras, kids would modify them as an expression of their personalities. Old fedoras would be turned inside-out, the brim would be upturned and cut to create interesting patterns. Kids would further customize these creations with pins and other trinkets. These fun repurposed fedoras came to be known as whoopee caps

By 1929, with the increasing popularity of whoopee caps, the Six Jumping Jacks released the song The Whoopee Hat Brigade. By the 1930s manufactured versions became available for sale – for those who didn’t want to go the DIY route. Whoopee caps spread to pop culture with two of the most famous whoopee cap wearers being Goober Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show, and Jughead Jones from Archie comics. Over time Jughead’s hat became so stylized it became more of a crown than a whoopee cap. Thanks to the 2017 Archie TV show Riverdale the Jughead whoopee cap has evolved again taking on more of a knit beanie style.

Added info: the name Fedora is the feminine version of the Russian name Fedor, which is the equivalent of the Greek Theodore, which means “gift of the gods”.

Honey & Allergies

Eating local honey doesn’t help with your seasonal allergies (but it tastes good at least).

Broadly speaking, trees and other plants use one of two methods for reproduction. One method is to rely on bees, animals, or other creatures to interact with the plant and then spread the pollen to other plants. The second method is to release pollen into the wind and hope for the best. It’s this second category, scattering pollen to the wind, that people are allergic to when they have seasonal allergies. 

Delicious but unhelpful

There is an idea that eating local honey can help you deal with seasonal allergies because local honey is made from the local pollen you’re allergic to – that through exposure to small amounts of what triggers your allergic reaction you can teach your immune system to not react (ie. immunotherapy). Unfortunately this doesn’t work for a few reasons.

To start, when you consume local honey you don’t know what sort of pollen it contains or in what amount. So while it may theoretically contain the pollen that triggers your allergic reaction you can’t be sure and every batch of honey is different.

Further, local honey is made with the “wrong” kind of pollen. Honey is made with the pollen bees collect through physical contact with plants, but the pollen of your seasonal allergies is the kind that’s spread on the wind. As such there isn’t going to be much (if any) of the pollen that triggers your allergies in honey. Therefor eating local honey won’t help with your seasonal allergies.

French Dog Names

Since 1926 all pedigree dogs in France have been named based on the letter of the year.

The Société Centrale Canine (the Central Canine Society) is the kennel club of France. Since 1926 the SCC has had a naming convention that all pedigree dogs born in the same year are given a name starting with the same letter – the letter changing each year. So all pedigree dogs born in 1926 had names that started with the letter A, in 1927 they started with B, and so on. The intention was to simplify the work of dog genealogists tracking the lineage of pedigree dogs in the country.

Over time some letters were removed from the system because of how few French names begin with those letters. The letter Z was omitted from the system at the beginning and in 1973 K, Q, W, X, Y were all removed. This left a 20 letter system where, when you meet a fancy pedigree dog, you know exactly how old it is by its name.

Added info: this French naming rule only applies to pedigree dogs, not all dogs. Pedigree dogs are dogs whose lineage has been recorded. Mutts, adopted dogs, shelter dogs – none of these are restricted by the naming convention.

As for the difference between purebred and pedigree, purebred dogs are those whose parents are of the same breed. Pedigree dogs can be purebred or can be mixed breed, but whatever their lineage their genealogy is recorded.

Pink Doughnut Boxes

Pink doughnut boxes exist because of Cambodian immigrants.

In movies and TV shows doughnut boxes are frequently pink. This is in part because many of the doughnut boxes in the Los Angeles area are pink. These pink boxes are a subtle hint that, if you spot them in a story set in New York City or somewhere, it was actually shot in LA. The reason these doughnut boxes are pink is because of Cambodian immigrant Ted Ngoy and his doughnut shop empire. 

In 1975 Ngoy and his family fled the Khmer Rouge on the last flight out of Phenom Penh and emigrated to America. He started life over as a janitor in a Lutheran Church but eventually noticed how popular the doughnut shop was near his other job as a gas station attendant. Ngoy enrolled in Winchell’s training program learning the ins & outs of running a doughnut shop.

Taking what he learned Ngoy started his own doughnut shop, Christy’s Donuts, in the La Habra area in 1977. Eventually this sole shop begat others and Ted & his wife owned over 50 locations in southern California. Along the way he would sponsor other Cambodian immigrants, setting them up for business in his doughnut shops. But it was during the scrappy early days that he came upon the idea for pink boxes.

the character of Marsellus Wallace crossing the street in Pulp Fiction carrying a box of doughnuts
The Pulp Fiction character of Marsellus Wallace carries a pink box of doughnuts across the street just before his day gets much much worse.

Pretty in Pink

Supposedly Ngoy wanted red boxes as red is the color of luck for Chinese-Cambodians. White on the other hand is the color of mourning & death. The closest his box vendor Westco had were leftover pink boxes which sold for a few cents cheaper than white boxes. For the price and the symbolism(ish) pink became the color of boxes for Ngoy’s shops.

Soon Ngoy’s competitors were using pink boxes as well. In 2003 these boxes inspired Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson for the box design of his new company Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Oregon who have some of the most famous pink doughnut boxes around.

Today you still see pink doughnut boxes around LA. They’re so connected to southeast Asian immigrants that they became a canvas for Cambodian American artists in 2022. As of 2020 it’s estimated around 80% of the independent doughnut shops in California are owned by Cambodian-Americans, many of whom credit “Uncle Ted” for getting them started.

Added info: similar to how Ted Ngoy’s influence helped Cambodian immigrants dominate the LA doughnut scene, Tippi Hedren is credited with helping Vietnamese immigrants dominate the nail salon industry.

Also, the highs & lows of Ted Ngoy’s life story are enough to fill multiple lifetimes. You can learn more about him in the 2020 documentary The Donut King.

The wild ride of the highs & lows of Ted Ngoy’s life as The Donut King.

Sunday Morning reports on the Cambodian history of California doughnut shops.

Murder Ballads

The long tradition of songs about murder.

Murder ballads are narrative songs that tell murderous tales. Before true crime TV and podcasts, there were murder ballads. Then and now people got a thrill out of hearing dark sensational stories. While modern examples exist the traditional folk examples are perhaps the most well known.

There are variations within the genre but these songs are frequently about a murdered woman sung from the perspective of the male killer (who may be dead or about to die himself). Very often the subtext of these songs is that the victim transgressed in some way, crossing a moral cultural boundary, and paid the price. Being a member of a patriarchal society, and adding insult to injury, the female murder victims are frequently shamed for getting pregnant out of wedlock, cheating, being too attractive for the killer to be able to control himself, etc. These songs kept the moral alive and taught people to conform to societal norms (while being scandalously entertaining).

Long Black Veil, and other murderous tales

Songs about murder can be found around the world but the murder ballad genre as we know it got its start in Scandinavia and the British Isles in the 16th to 17th centuries. Eventually the genre emigrated to Appalachia and can be heard in American folk music. The lyrics of these songs were often about the news of the day.

The Knoxville Girl, about a man who beats a woman to death as she begs for mercy, is perhaps the most famous example of the murder ballad genre. It’s been covered many times by groups such as The Louvin Brothers, Nick Cave, the Lemonheads, etc. In America the song is The Knoxville Girl but it was derived from the older 19th century Irish ballad The Wexford Girl (which itself is based on a 17th century murder). 

The Louvin Brothers recorded a great version of The Knoxville Girl. Also the Cocaine & Rhinestones episode on the Louvin Brothers is worth a listen.

Stagger Lee is about the Christmas 1895 murder of Billy Lyons by the pimp “Stag” Lee Shelton in St. Louis. Stagger Lee killed Lyons after an argument in a saloon. The 1958 Lloyd Price version of the song is the most pop friendly but the 1928 version by Mississippi John Hurt is the most traditional (and most celebrated).

The legendary Mississippi John Hurt’s version of Stagger Lee is one of the most celebrated.

The Murder of the Lawson Family is about Charles Lawson’s 1929 Christmas murder of his wife and six of their seven children in North Carolina. In a case of extreme lyrical dissonance the 1956 version of this song by the Stanley Brothers is very upbeat until you listen to the lyrics.

Don’t let the upbeat melody fool you, The Murder of the Lawson Family is a brutal story (as the title implies).

Tom Dooley is about the 1866 murder of Laura Foster, also in North Carolina, by Tom Dula (pronounced Tom Dooley). Dula was the father of Foster’s unborn child while he was also having affairs with other women in the same family. He stabbed her to death killing her and the baby and was later hung. The song was a big hit for The Kingston Trio in 1958. 

1959’s Long Black Veil by Lefty Frizzell is a classic country murder ballad and has been covered by loads of artists from Johnny Cash, to The Band, Jerry Garcia & David Grisman, etc. The protagonist is executed for a murder he didn’t commit because he refused to divulge his alibi which was that he was having an affair at the time of the murder. The woman he was having the affair with visits his grave wearing a long black veil.

Long Black Veil has been a very popular murder ballad to cover over the years.

Staying with country music, El Paso by Marty Robbins is a western murder ballad where the protagonist murders another man who is sharing a drink with the woman he is interested in. He flees to New Mexico but later returns to the woman and dies in her arms. El Paso is used, with a heavy dose of foreshadowing, in the final season of Breaking Bad.

The Marty Robbins classic murder ballad El Paso was later a regular feature in Grateful Dead sets.

Hey Joe is about a man who murders his unfaithful wife and then escapes to Mexico. Songwriting credit for Hey Joe is debated but the 1962 version by Billy Roberts is the first copywritten version. The song has been covered many times but the 1966 version by Jimi Hendrix is the most famous (and best).

The 1962 version of Hey Joe was the first to be registered for copyright. Who exactly wrote it however is debatable.

Recorded in 1966, Jimi Hendrix’s version of Hey Joe is the definitive version.

Riders on the Storm by the Doors is loosely based on the 22 day 1951 killing spree by Billy Cook. The incident went from Missouri to California during which Cook used multiple vehicles, posing as a hitchhiker, murdering six people. 

One of the Doors’ last great masterpieces, Riders on the Storm is a dark foreboding murder ballad mixed with Martin Heidegger philosophical ideas.

Added info: Nick Cave released the album Murder Ballads in 1996 and is an entire album of murder ballads, both new originals and covers.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Christmas carol about the 12 days after Christmas that is mostly full of birds.

The Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas corresponds to the 12 day Christian season following Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas are after Christmas, not before it. Starting with Christmas Day as the first day the 12 days of Christmas end on January 5th the eve of the Epiphany. Incidentally the evening of January 5th, the 12th night, is the title reference in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Twelfth Night.

As for the song, it was originally a poem and has a cumulative verse style. It probably began life as a memory & forfeit game for twelfth night festivities where participants would recite the cumulative lines faster and faster until making a mistake and be eliminated. As a poem the earliest known publication is 1780 in Mirth Without Mischief (but the poem is likely much older). It was finally set to music in 1868.

1 + (1+2) + (1+2+3) …

The song is sung from the perspective of someone whose true love gives them gifts on each of the 12 days of Christmas. The first day is a partridge in a pear tree, the second day is two turtle doves, etc. However, the gifts are given repeatedly on each new day plus the latest gift. For example a partridge in a pear tree is given on the first day but it’s given on the other 11 days as well, meaning 12 partridges are given in total. Adding it all up there are 364 total items given across the 12 days – most of which are birds.

The items given each day really adds up over 12 days.

A covey, a bevy, a brood, … 

The first 7 days of gifts are all birds which, adding them up across the 12 days, means 224 birds are given. That’s a lot of birds. This works when you realize that the five gold rings were not originally jewelry.

As the lyrics have changed over the years, the five gold rings most likely started out as either five ringed pheasants or five “goldspinks” (an older name for the goldfinch). As strange as the song is this would make a lot more sense since the first 4 days are all birds and then the next 2 are also birds. 

The four calling birds also make little sense (birds sing but they don’t exactly call), but looking back at earlier versions of the lyrics this was previously “four collie birds”. The name “collie bird” is an older name for a blackbird with collie being a reference to colliery (another name for a coal mine).

The gift of a partridge is straightforward enough, but the pear tree is an odd addition. The English word “partridge”, through a series of language leaps, comes from the Greek “perdix” which is related to “perdesthai” meaning “to fart”. The partridge is a bird named after farting and probably acquired this flatulent name because of the sound its wings make when flapping. The “pear tree” is probably because it sounds like “pertis”, the French for “partridge”.

Go-old Rings

The melody and lyrics we know today are because of late 19th / early 20th century English musician Frederic Austin. Around 1905 Austin standardized The Twelve Days of Christmas, setting it to a traditional folk tune, which was published by Novello & Co Ltd. in 1909. He changed collie birds to calling birds and he also gave us perhaps the most memorable part of “five go-old rings”.

Austin made the fifth gift the jewelry of gold rings we know today. His innovation of singing this part as “five go-old rings” is copyrighted and as such royalties have to be paid to Novello & Co Ltd. should you use their version of the song.

The Three-ish Wise Men

Most of what we think we know about the three wise men comes from art and folk tradition … and is wrong.

Part of the Christmas narrative is that the Holy Family was visited by three wise men shortly after the birth of Jesus. Similar to how we aren’t exactly sure when Jesus was born, we also aren’t exactly sure how many wise men there were. We say three because there were three gifts given but the Bible doesn’t specify. Maybe a few wise men went in on a gift together.

Some people say three because the names of the wise men are said to be Gaspar/Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar/Balthazar (kings of India, Persia, and Arabia or Ethiopia respectively), but this is just a folk tradition – there is no evidence to support any of this.

RSVP

How we think of the wise men has been influenced by centuries of art. Liberal artistic license places the shepherds, the wise men, farm animals, and the Holy Family all in the manger shortly after the birth of Jesus. That said the Bible doesn’t actually give a specific date for the arrival of the wise men and it’s more likely they arrived much later – having them all in the manger together is just more convenient for a painting. Matthew 2:11 states that the wise men visited the Holy Family in a house, not the manger.

While many Christians celebrate the arrival of the three wise men on January 6th (the Epiphany) this seems to be more a date to celebrate the event than when it actually occurred. It is speculated that the arrival of the wise men could have been as late as two years after Jesus’s birth. This is “supported” by Herod’s command to have all boys 2 years of age and younger slaughtered in an attempt to kill the newly born King of the Jews – the idea being that perhaps the wise men relayed news of Jesus to Herod some time after Jesus’s birth and Herod cast a wide net of ages. That said this Massacre of the Innocents is also something that probably never happened.

The three wise men have been the subject of art for centuries, which has influenced how we think of them.

Kings, Wise men, Zoroastrian priests

So aside from not knowing how many wise men there were, or when they arrived, do we at least know what sort of men they were? By the 3rd century CE people were referring to these travelers as kings. As good as the song We Three Kings is, there is no evidence that these travelers were kings. In fact it is highly unlikely (and a little silly) that the crowned heads of multiple kingdoms would have been traveling in such a fashion. Isaiah 60:1–6 and Psalm 72:11 are mostly to blame for this idea, as both passages allude to kings showing deference and worshipping the Messiah – but kings in general. Neither of these passages say anything about specifically these individuals in the Christmas narrative being kings.

The wise men are also known as the “magi”. The term “magi” comes from Latin, by way of Greek, from the Old Persian “maguŝ” who were priests. It’s unclear if the magi were originally priests of just Zoroastrianism or a mix of regional Persian religions. That said over time the magi of Persia became esteemed for their knowledge, but the magi of nearby Babylonia were thought of as frauds/imposters.

From this “magi” came to be a general term for practitioners in esoteric/mystical fields of study: astrology, alchemy, etc. Incidentally “maguŝ” is the same etymological root for the word “magic” for this reason. So rather than wandering kings, the wise men (of some unknown number) were more likely Zoroastrian priests / practitioners of mystical arts from the East, following the movements of the stars.

Added info: much is made of the gifts brought by the wise men. Using the three supposed names of the wise men: Gaspar brought frankincense, Melchior brought gold, and Balthasar myrrh. What does one do with these gifts?

Gold has the most obvious purpose. Then and now gold was valuable. It is also symbolic of Jesus’s kingship. 

Frankincense is a resin that comes from the Boswellia sacra tree. It was blended with other ingredients and used as an incense burned in religious ceremonies. In Judaism in particular it was used by priests as a literal smoke screen because to see God was to die, and the smoke of the incense could diffuse actually seeing God (should God appear). The symbolism of frankincense is that Jesus is the high priest.

Myrrh is a resin taken from the very thorny Commiphora myrrha tree. It was used as an embalming oil and, as a gift of the magi, alludes to Jesus’s mortality and eventual crucifixion.

Finally, the three kings who gave the gift of music were the three kings of the blues. Albert King, B.B. King, and Freddie King make up the three kings of the blues and were massively influential musicians who shaped blues music and thereby shaped rock & roll.

(Tangentially related) One of the three kings of the blues, B.B. King’s cover of Merry Christmas Baby.

Yule Lads

The Icelandic tradition that, instead of Santa Claus, 13 magical brothers visit children on the nights leading up to Christmas.

The Dimmuborgir lava fields of northeastern Iceland is said to be the home of the ogre/troll Grýla, her lazy third husband Leppaludi (she murdered her first two husbands), and at least 13 of her troll children. The number 13 is the recently agreed upon number because, as with any folk tale, the exact names & numbers have changed over time. At one point Grýla was said to have as many as 82 possible children depending on the version of the story. Her appearance also changes with the telling of the story – she sometimes has horns, cloven feet, 40 tails or maybe 15 tails, 3 faces or just 1 face, etc.

Exactly what Grýla looks like has varied over the centuries, but her affinity for eating children has remained constant. Also, the painting of her on the right, looking very much like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son, is by artist Thrándur Þórarinsson.

Grýla hears about bad Icelandic children all year long and, in the dark cold of winter, she wanders the land tracking them down. She kidnaps misbehaved children, sticking them in a sack over her shoulder (or in a sack being held by one of her tails), and takes them back to her cave where she cooks them into a stew for herself and Leppaludi. Around the same time her sons set out to perform mischief.

The 13 Brothers

Each of Grýla’s 13 sons depart for Icelandic homes one at a time, with one arriving each night for 13 successive nights. Stekkjarstaur, “Sheep-worrier”, arrives first on the night of December 12th. Each son has a proclivity towards a certain kind of mischief that (a bit on the nose, and rather like the 7 dwarfs) their preferred form of mischief is each troll’s name. On December 16th Pottaskefill “Pot-scraper” arrives to steal leftovers from pots. On December 18th Hurðaskellir, “Door-slammer”, arrives and slams doors at night – and so on. The culmination of this is the arrival of Kertasníkir, “Candle-stealer”, on Christmas Eve. Each son remains for 13 days after their arrival, somewhere hidden it would seem, and depart for home one by one until next winter.

A collection of Yule Lad illustrations, after their sanitizing rebranding. The illustrations of Brian Pilkington in particular, more than anyone else, has helped define the Yule Lads for modern audiences.

From Winter Bad Boys to Santa Stand-Ins

The idea of the ogress Grýla’s and her 13 sons wandering the land in winter was incredibly scary for children (like the scary idea of Krampus wandering the Alps). At best these creatures may invade your home and cause havoc, at worst you might be kidnapped & eaten. Perhaps understandably in 1746 the Danish government (who governed Iceland at the time) banned Icelandic parents from using this story to scare their children.

Beginning in the 18th century, and especially in the 19th century, this story underwent a sanitizing change in public image (except Grýla, who continued to be a murderous villain). The change started slowly in the more densely populated towns but eventually spread across the country to farm houses as well. Rather than being a winter story of dark forces it took on more of a whimsical Christmas sentiment. 

The 13 troll brothers were reimagined as light-hearted bearded gnomes/dwarfs. To further the association with Christmas they became the Jólasveinar, the “Yule Lads”, and instead of solely spreading mischief they became gift givers. Similar to how Santa rewards the good and punishes the bad, the Yule Lads took on the role of Christmas good cop bad cop. On each of the 13 nights children are instructed to leave a shoe by the window where, if they’ve been good, the Yule Lad who arrives that night will leave a gift. If the child has been bad however they’ll get a rotten potato.

The Yule Cat

This Icelandic Christmas tradition has one more evil component: Jólakötturinn the “Yule Cat”. Similar to how Azrael is the evil cat companion of Gargamel in The Smurfs, so too is Jólakötturinn the devilish pet of Grýla. Jólakötturinn is said to be a gigantic black cat who prowls Christmas night looking for children (or possible adults as well) who did not receive new clothes for Christmas. The ones he finds he eats. 

Many Levels

Fairy tales / folk tales entertain as well as educate, and the Icelandic tradition of Grýla and the Yule Lads is no different. These stories teach practical lessons and communicate cultural values. Prosaically telling a child not to waste limited food resources in the winter is ok, but telling them a troll may come in the night and steal their food will certainly get their attention. Grýla instills the lesson that Icelandic winters are harsh and dangerous, don’t go outdoors alone. Even the Yule Cat’s story has more to do with putting pressure on Icelanders to finish their weaving projects before Christmas, instilling a strong work ethic in the next generation, than the idea that a diabolical black cat likes to see people in new clothes.

Added info: Of Grýla’s other children that didn’t make the sanitized final 13, Lungnaslettir has to be the most memorable / horrific. He carries his lungs outside of his body (or possibly the lungs of a sheep). His name translates to “Lung-splatterer” as his chosen form of mischief is to chase children and hit them with his bloody lungs.

The highly influential 2001 book The Yule Lads: A Celebration of Iceland’s Christmas Folklore by Brian Pilkington, more than anything else, has helped define the Yule Lads for modern audiences. Pilkington’s illustration work is nostalgic to the folk tradition while still reimagining the characters. His Yule Lad illustrations are also the basis for a fun collection of Christmas tree ornaments.

Also, national treasure Björk has recorded multiple Christmas songs based on Icelandic Christmas traditions. The first is 1987’s Jólakotturinn, about the Yule Cat. The second is 1995’s Jólasveinar ganga um gólf a new version of the traditional Icelandic song about the Yule Lads.

Learn more about the Yule Cat, Grýla, and the Yule Lads.

A great intro to Icelandic Christmas traditions.

One of two Icelandic Christmas songs Björk has recorded, Jólasveinar ganga um gólf is a new version of the traditional Icelandic song about the Yule Lads.

Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner (Supper, & Tea)

The names and details of our daily meals are relatively recent creations.

Breakfast

The clue being in the name, breakfast is the first meal of the day, the meal where you “break your fast” (the fast of not eating overnight in your sleep). That said this first meal of the day wasn’t always first thing in the morning like it is today. Up through the early Middle Ages people would rise and do without eating until after they had worked for several hours.

Further complicating things this late morning first meal of the day, before being called breakfast, was called dinner. From the Old French “disner” meaning “to break one’s fast” the first meal of the day only became “breakfast” in the 15th century. This early meal would be bread, maybe some cheese, and some alcohol (alcohol being safer to drink than water).

Dinner and Supper

As breakfast became breakfast, dinner moved from the 1st time slot to the 2nd. You would eat a small meal upon waking (breakfast), eat a large meal in the late morning to give you energy for the rest of your work (dinner), and then a small meal in the evening. The small meal at the end of the day was supper, from the French “souper”. This was typically a soup that you supped, a soup that was slow cooked throughout the day to be ready in the evening.

But dinner wasn’t done moving and moved again from the 2nd time slot to the 3rd, replacing supper as the last meal of the day. This change wasn’t all at once. The dinner shift in time slot was due to several reasons not least of which was the changing nature of how people worked. When people worked out of their homes or in an agrarian lifestyle in the fields near their homes, it was easier to prepare & eat a large meal in the middle of the day. Through the Industrial Revolution work moved to factories & offices and it became impractical to have a large meal in the middle of the day. As such dinner continued to be the biggest meal of the day but it moved to the end of the day when people returned from work.

That said, while “dinner” is the term most people use for the big meal at the end of the day some people (particularly those of agricultural backgrounds) still call this meal supper. Generally speaking though “dinner” and “supper” are seen as synonymous terms for the same meal. As such the Last Supper could have been the Last Dinner.

Lunch

With breakfast at the start of the day, and dinner now the last meal of the day, this left a time slot opening in the middle of the day. Lunch is essentially if dinner and supper switched places and supper changed its name. Starting in the 18th century lunch became a small midday meal, increasing in popularity as more and more people had their dinner at the end of the day.

Tea Time

So what is tea / tea time? After the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza introduced tea to England in the 17th century it eventually became a staple of British life. Tea as a meal took two forms: Afternoon Tea and High Tea. Confusingly, afternoon tea is the classier of the two.

Tea was originally had after the large midday meal of dinner, as tea was believed to assist digestion. As dinner moved to the end of the day tea time was created as a way to hold people over between lunch and dinner while still having tea after midday. Afternoon tea, as the name suggests, was served in the afternoon. It was a light meal of tea served with cucumber sandwiches, scones, cakes and other elegant snack foods – it’s tea time of the upper class (because who else had the time to break for fancy foods in the midafternoon?). High tea on the other hand was the meal of the working class. Working people couldn’t take a break midafternoon so they had their tea with heartier snacks after they came home in the evening but before their supper (or dinner).

As dinner replaced supper as the final meal of the day some people in British countries merged dinner and high tea, calling this meal “tea”.