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.


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.

the Darlene Love Christmas Tradition

Darlene Love performed Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) every year on Late Show with David Letterman for 28 years.

In the 1960s Darlene Love sang as part of the Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, for whom she sang both lead as well as background vocals on a host of hit songs. She’s the uncredited lead vocalist on The Crystals’ 1962 hit He’s a Rebel, she sang background on The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, she sang background on the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, etc. Darlene Love’s voice can be heard all over the hit songs of the ‘60s.

A Christmas Tradition

In 1963 Love sang on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. The album is packed with great songs but Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is a masterpiece. While it wasn’t a hit at the time (it was released the same day as the Kennedy assassination) it’s become a Christmas standard. Basically, before Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, there was Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

Despite her talent Love’s career stalled in the 1970s and she found herself cleaning houses for a living. When she heard her own Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the radio while cleaning a home she decided she had to stage a comeback – enter David Letterman. In 1986 Letterman invited Love to perform Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on his show which became an annual tradition. For the next 29 years Love came back every year to perform the song (with the exception of 2007 during the writer’s strike). This Christmas tradition earned her the nickname of the “Christmas Queen”. In 2011 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Added info: During her comeback, Love sang backup on the cover of her own song when she sang background vocals on the 1987 U2 version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Love has also had an acting career, notably playing Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover’s) wife in the Lethal Weapon series.

Darlene Love’s final performance of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Letterman show in 2014.

A compilation of performances of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Letterman show.

When is Christmas?

Jesus’s birthday wasn’t December 25th – it was more likely sometime in September.

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. He wasn’t even born in the year 1 AD (AD, Anno Domini, a calendar system created entirely on the idea of the year of Jesus’s birth). There are competing theories as to why December 25th was chosen.

Christmas: meh ¯_(ツ)_/¯

To start, early Christians weren’t particularly focused on the date of Jesus’s birth – they were much more interested in Jesus’s ministry and Easter resurrection. The first recorded mention of Jesus’s birthday was around 200 CE by Clement of Alexandria who offered several possible dates, none of which were December 25th.

By around 300 CE two dates became associated with Jesus’s birth: December 25th and January 6th. December 25th became Jesus’s birthday for most western churches while January 6th became Christmas in a few others (January 6th also became the Feast of the Epiphany in western churches).

Despite what the internet might tell you, it is unlikely that December 25th was selected to usurp the pagan holidays of Sol Invictus, Saturnalia, or winter solstice festivals in general. Early Christians were strongly focused on distancing themselves and their beliefs from pagan religions. By the time Christians were co-opting pagan festivities to increase adoption of the faith the December 25th date for Christmas had already been established for over a hundred years.

From John the Baptist to Jesus

One of the best theories as to why we associate December 25th with Jesus’s birth has to do with the date of his crucifixion. There was a theory that great figures would be born and die in the same month (and even on the same date). The crucifixion has been calculated to have taken place on March 25th (but even that is debatable). Early Christians seem to have replaced his birth with his divine conception for this theory, and believing Jesus was conceived on March 25 (and counting 9 months later) brings us to his birth on December 25th.

So Jesus was born in December … except it could have been September. In Luke 1.26–27 we’re told that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel in the 6th month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and, if we calculate his birth based on his father Zechariah’s priestly duties at the temple, John was most likely born in late March. If Jesus was conceived 6 months after John, and adding 9 months, then Jesus’s birth took place sometime in September. That said, this math could also work with Zechariah’s second time serving in the temple, which would then place Jesus’s birth around March.

Either spring or fall, these dates make more sense with the idea that shepherds would be out tending their flock (which the Christmas narrative tells us) – there aren’t a lot of shepherds out tending their flock in the cold of December. Further, it’s unlikely the census that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for would have been in the winter, when the roads were in poor condition.

QI discusses the notion that Joseph & Mary traveled to Bethlehem to be a part of a Roman survey … which isn’t true.

Krampus: Saint Nicholas’s Enforcer

The devilish Christmas demon that comes for your children.

In Central to Eastern Europe, from Northern Italy up through the Czech Republic but with particular focus on Austria, there is an Advent tradition of a demon creature named Krampus. He arrives the night of December 5th to punish misbehaved children. His physical appearance varies but the essentials are that he’s hairy, has cloven hooves, he’s horned, fanged, and usually has his tongue out. He sometimes wears chains or bells but he always has a birch stick to hit children with. For the especially bad kids Krampus has a sack / basket / cart he uses to kidnap them and take them off to be eaten.

Krampusnacht (“Krampus night”) is the night before Saint Nicholas’s day, December 6th. So right before Saint Nicholas comes to reward the good boys & girls with gifts, the “Christmas devil” comes to town to punish the misbehaved children. Towns and cities have parades and Krampusnacht Festivals the night of the 5th where men, dressed as Krampus demons, carry torches and move through the streets intimidating children (and adults, although they sometimes hand out schnapps to the adults). In more remote towns there is less of a “parade” and more of a “mad dash” (the Krampusflauf or “Krampus run”) of demons running through the streets.

While some claim that Krampus is part of an ancient pagan tradition, this is unlikely. There are no records of Krampus before the 16th century. The earliest known Krampus nights took place in 1582 in the Bavarian town of Diessen featuring a precursor to Krampus known as Perchta. Over time Perchta’s evil form (known as Schiachperchten) most likely became Krampus. By the mid 19th century Krampus became associated with Saint Nicholas (as something of a tamed devil – all of which was against the wishes of the Catholic Church). As Saint Nicholas morphed into being Santa Claus, Krampus came along for the ride.

Krampus comes in various styles, but when he comes … it’s trouble.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Part of the allure of Krampus is that he’s a monstrous entity who appears during a season that is generally wholesome and friendly. He’s a bit of Halloween during Christmas. His role as an enforcer, here to punish children, is not uncommon. Santa Claus traditionally has a list of naughty & nice children, doing double duty rewarding the good children and leaving coal for the bad ones. In several European countries however the duty of doling out punishment is outsourced to a companion character. Belsnickel, Père Fouettard, Knecht Ruprecht, and (the very problematic) Zwarte Piet are all varying folk traditions of someone other than St. Nicholas / Santa Claus punishing bad children before Christmas. Evil punishes evil, good rewards good.

Krampus is the bad cop to Saint Nicholas’s good cop. Good vs evil, light vs dark, the duality of life, he’s a dark counterpoint to the positive happy qualities of the season. It’s a carrot and stick approach to raising well behaved children. The Krampus tradition also lets the steam out a bit, it rebels against the conformity of the polite family-friendly Christmas and the increasing commercialization of the season.

Learn more about the Austrian tradition of Krampus and see some Krampus demons in action.


The Mexican plant that has become a standard part of Christmas (and isn’t poisonous).

The poinsettia comes from Mexico & Guatemala and, in its untamed form, grows to be fairly gangly and around 10ft tall. Over the centuries it’s been selectively bred to be about 2ft tall with very dense foliage. The most well-known characteristic of the poinsettia is of course the bright red leaves along the top of the plant. These red leaves are not flowers but are the bracts of the poinsettia – specialized leaves that are different than the rest of the plant (the actual flowers, aka. the cyathia, are the small buds at the center of the red bracts). These special leaves are green until late autumn when, in the cooler shorter days, they turn red.

Poinsett to Poinsettia

The plant had already been known & used by the Aztecs for dyes and medicine but it came to the attention of the Western world through US Minister to Mexico (and amateur botanist) Joel Roberts Poinsett. Specimens had already been collected around 1803 by German scientific superstar Alexander von Humboldt, but it was re-discovered by Poinsett who introduced the plant to the US.

In 1828 Poinsett sent plants & seeds to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (contrary to internet rumoring, there is no definitive proof that he sent poinsettia plants home to his native South Carolina). In 1835 Scottish horticulturalist and active member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society Robert Buist named the plant the Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. Buist also helped introduce the poinsettia to Europe.

Named for US Minister to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, the poinsettia has been a standard part of Christmas for over a century.

Paul Ecke Ranch

Over the next century the poinsettia was cultivated into different varieties – shorter, taller, different colors, different patterns. The Paul Ecke Ranch of California have cultivated and sold poinsettias since the early 20th century. Having successfully produced cultivars which were more beautiful, more compact, and sturdier than other varieties, the Ecke family began to create and then dominate the market.

For decades they would send free poinsettias from November through December to a variety of media outlets. Ecke Rach poinsettias appeared on the Tonight Show, Bob Hope Christmas specials, the Dinah Shore Show, in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens – all of which furthered the popularity and demand for poinsettias at Christmas. Today the Ecke Ranch (who were sold to the Agribio Group in 2012) is the largest poinsettia producer in the world with about a 50% share of the global market and around 70% of the domestic US market.

That Plant is … Safe

Poinsettias are not poisonous. While you or your pets probably shouldn’t eat the leaves of a poinsettia, you wouldn’t be struck dead if you did. The myth that they are deadly most likely goes back to 1919 when a child in Hawaii died of poisoning which was wrongly attributed to the poinsettia leaf. Research has shown that you would have to eat hundreds of leaves to produce mild irritation or vomiting at most. Given that the leaves are unpalatable and very bitter it’s unlikely you would eat enough to suffer the consequences.

Christmas Ghost Stories

Stemming from ancient pagan traditions, it used to be customary to tell ghost stories at Christmas.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Knowing that Jesus was not born in December, the date of December 25th was chosen for multiple reasons but not least of which was to usurp various pagan winter solstice holidays. Before people gathered together for Christmas they would gather together around fires (such as the Yule log) for various pagan winter holidays on the longest nights of the year during which they would tell stories. Similar to Halloween it was thought that in these long nights the veil between this world and the next was thin allowing spirits to pass back and forth. As such many people told ghost stories of revenants back from the dead, spirits, and other supernatural creatures.

As people adopted Christianity, winter ghost stories went from being a pagan tradition to a Christmas tradition. By the 17th century the Lord and Protector of England Oliver Cromwell tried to eliminate Christmas ghost stories because of their pagan origins. Cromwell also outlawed a host of other Christmas traditions including caroling and feasts (and that’s not even the worst of Cromwell’s legacy). These traditions eventually came back post-Cromwell but by then some were seen as old-fashioned.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol became the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time.

A Christmas Carol

Christmas ghost stories achieved a new kind of popularity in the Victorian Era through the Industrial Revolution. As the oral tradition of Christmas ghost stories moved to print, old traditional stories as well as new Christmas stories saw a surge in popularity through magazines, novellas, and book collections. Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol took the tradition to a new level.

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. It’s easier to see it as a ghost story if you remove the Christmas trappings by placing it in another time of year. Unlike the traditional Christmas ghost stories Dickens reinvented the genre by including moral lessons of forgiveness, good deeds, generosity, etc. His ghosts served as a catalyst towards redemption which was very different than the ghosts of other stories which were primarily used for a good scare. Soon the redemptive, somewhat saccharine, aspects of A Christmas Carol were adopted by other authors and the scary ghost portions of Christmas stories slowly fell by the wayside.

Today we rarely associate scary ghost stories with Christmas. Similar to how Santa Claus and Krampus are a seasonal version of good cop/bad cop, we’ve mostly relegated our scary stories to Halloween while telling our hopeful happy stories at Christmas. Still, if you were to put aside the modern concept of Christmas, this dark cold time of year is the perfect time to gather around the fire and tell scary stories in the darkness.

Added info: take a trip through time and read some collections of Victorian Christmas ghost stories.

The Caganer

The Catalonian tradition of including a man pooping in the Christmas nativity for good luck.

In the Catalonia region of Spain, in the northeast corner of the country, there is a Christmas tradition of including the statue of a man defecating in the nativity scene. The caganer (aka “the pooper”) is typically a man wearing the traditional Catalan clothes of a red cap, white shirt, and black trousers crouched down pooping.

While Jesus, Mary, & Joseph are at the center of the nativity scene the caganer is usually off to the side. He can also be moved around each day in a little game of hide and seek. The purpose of the caganer is that he brings good luck by fertilizing not just the land but also the future of the family who owns the nativity. It also shows that everyone is truly equal, that everyone poops. Caganer statues are available in shops around Barcelona and aren’t just limited to the traditional style. You can find caganers modeled after world leaders, celebrities, movie characters, the pope, Disney princesses, and more.

Today you can find a wide variety of caganers, from world leaders to comic book characters.

Learn more about the caganer tradition.
Caga Tió, the “poop log” is fed and later beaten to produce gifts for children.

Caga Tió

The caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas pooping tradition. The Tió de Nadal (aka the “Caga Tió” aka the “poop log”) is a wooden log frequently with a smiling face painted on the one end and little legs to prop it up. The tradition is that children will leave little bits of food for the tió during Advent and on Christmas Eve or Day they beat the log with sticks while singing. This ceremony induces the log, which is partially covered by a blanket, to poop little gifts for children (which have been hidden under the blanket). Once it has served its purposes the log is burned in the fire or thrown out.

Added info: The Catalonians have several traditions associated with pooping. One expression sometimes said before eating is “Menja bé, caga fort!” or “Eat well, poop hard!”

Santa’s Reindeer

Santa’s reindeer are all female and possibly on drugs.

Our primary source of information regarding Santa’s reindeer is the 1823 Clement Clarke Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). As one of the most influential cultural artifacts regarding Santa Claus, the poem tells us that Santa’s sleigh is pulled through the air by eight reindeer. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is optionally added to the front of the team based on the Robert Lewis May 1939 story.

Who is flying the sled?

Reindeer are a species of deer and, as an Arctic and sub-Arctic animal, they are well-suited to assist Santa at the frigid North Pole (even though they are not naturally found at the pole). They graze primarily on lichen which is found a bit south of the North Pole. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability shared with other deer, allow reindeer to spot food, predators, and mates more easily amongst the highly reflective snow.

Christmas greeting card from 1921 featuring Santa and his flying antlered reindeer.

In pop-culture Santa’s reindeer are almost always depicted as having antlers. Both male and female reindeer grow, shed, and regrow their antlers. Male reindeer shed their antlers around November once mating season has ended but female reindeer keep their antlers until late May (giving expecting reindeer mothers the ability to defend food sources throughout the winter). That said, castrated male reindeer will retain their antlers February or March. Therefore all of Santa’s reindeer are either females or castrated males.

As for Rudolph, who could confusingly be a female reindeer with a male name, his/her red nose could be attributed to the reindeer nasal system which contains nasoturbinal bones. This system of curled bones increases the surface area with thin tissue inside reindeer noses which helps to warm air on the way in and recapture moisture when breathing out. It may not be glowing red, but for ordinary reindeer their noses are an evolutionary feature that enable them to live in harsh winter conditions.

The Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric mushroom, is the iconic mushroom featured throughout pop culture, which is native to Northern Europe.

Magic Mushrooms

In any of the original stories of Saint Nicholas his mode of transportation would have been a horse or a donkey. The introduction of reindeer moves the story, and Santa Claus, to the frosty areas of Northern Europe/Asia. As for flying reindeer, the ability to fly is not commonly found in reindeer. One theory for this association comes from the shamanistic religions of these northern cultures.

Due to the historically migratory nature of Laplanders they did not have a regular supply of alcohol until the recent past. It would have been fairly cumbersome to move alcohol production on a regular basis, let alone the challenge of keeping the yeast alive & active in the extreme cold. So instead as a way to come closer to God, or just go out of their minds, they had Amanita muscaria (aka the Fly Agaric) hallucinogenic mushrooms.

On their own the Fly Agaric mushrooms are hallucinogenic but poisonous. To reduce the toxic poisonous effects, but still get the hallucinogenic benefit, you have to process them. Outside of just eating lichen reindeer will also sometimes eat the Fly Agaric mushroom. The people of these northern regions learned you could “process” the mushrooms through the reindeer. After the animals had eaten the mushrooms people would collect and ingest the reindeer urine to receive the psychoactive benefits of the mushrooms with less of the toxic effects. Interestingly they would also “process” the mushrooms through other humans, which has a long (and fairly disgusting) history of people drinking the urine of others to get high.

As for flying reindeer, when the reindeer are high on the mushrooms their movements are erratic (but not flying). When humans are on the mushrooms however, they have reported taking shamanistic journeys with winged reindeer transporting them to the highest branches of the World Tree. Less dramatically, sitting around high on mushrooms people may have thought their reindeer were flying before their eyes.