The Mari Lwyd

The southern Welsh custom that looks creepy but is actually a fun roving party.

The Mari Lwyd (roughly pronounced “mary lewid”) is a late winter custom in southern Wales where groups of men go door-to-door singing irreverent songs for drinks & food (a ritual known as “pwnco”). It’s in the folk tradition of mumming / caroling / wassailing but it’s also a proto-rap battle. The group will sing to gain entrance to a home, and the homeowner will sing a response giving a reason to deny them entry. This exchange goes back and forth until one side wins, either sending the group away to the next house or allowing them inside where they’re given refreshments.

It’s typically performed around Christmas / New Year’s and the homeowners usually allow the Mari to enter their home as it’s thought to bring good luck for the coming year. The group eventually exits, heading back out into the night, to perform again at the next house.

The Pale Horse

What sets this tradition apart from other mumming / wassailing customs is the titular Mari Lwyd which is a ghostly hobby horse made up of a man hiding under a sheet holding up a horse skull. The skull is adorned with lights or baubles in the eye sockets, streamers hanging down, and the jaw is wired so she can snap at people. If she gains entry to your house she will cause mischief, chasing members of the house or feigning an attempt at stealing things, but in good fun.

The Mari Lwyd, while mischievous, isn't as menacing as she seems.
The Mari Lwyd, while mischievous, isn’t as menacing as she seems.

The etymology of “Mari Lwyd” is debated but it likely means “gray mare” (as “llwyd” is gray in Welsh). The custom has regional differences but the basics are the same (a horse skull, a roving singing party, etc). Far from being an ancient pagan rite, the Mari Lwyd is first mentioned around the start of the 19th century with the “boom years” being between 1850-1920. It was a way for poorer people to earn extra money & food in the cold of winter. They requested donations by offering audiences a healthy dose of fun entertainment … all under the grim menacing stare of a horse skull.

The tradition declined as the number of Welsh speakers declined (the songs & replies are in Welsh). The influence of the Methodist church, who disapproved of the sinful drinking and boisterous activity, also hurt the tradition. While the Mari Lwyd tradition isn’t as popular as it once was it’s having a resurgence and still carries on.

A short video on how the Mari Lwyd tradition is still alive and being passed on to the next generation.

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 or 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.

New England Vampires and Tuberculosis

The effects of tuberculosis led some 19th century New Englanders to believe that vampires were preying on the living.

In the late 18th and much of the 19th century there was a vampire panic in New England. People across New England feared that vampire-like creatures, using some kind of sympathetic magic, were slowly killing their friends & family from inside the grave (as opposed to traditional vampires who rise from the grave to attack). People would exhume their family members, look for the one who might be a vampire, and take various precautions to stop them. New Englanders might remove & burn the heart of a suspected vampire, they may turn the skeleton over facedown, decapitate the head, put a brick in their mouth, or use a wooden stake to pin their relative to the ground among other methods.

This panic was more than just a few isolated incidents. Henry David Thoreau mentions attending an exhumation in his journal on September 26, 1859. In February of 1793 over 500 people attended the ceremonial burning of the heart, liver, and lungs of supposed vampire Rachel Harris in Manchester, Vermont. After Nancy Young died in 1827 Rhode Island, her father thought that she might be preying on her still alive little sister Almira. The family exhumed Nancy’s coffin, burned it on a pyre, and stood in the smoke to breath in the vapors thinking it would free/cure them of this affliction – it did not work and Almira and two more of her siblings later died. Digesting the cremated remains of a suspected vampire, or breathing in the smoke of the cremation pyre, were not uncommon last resort treatments after traditional medicine had failed to heal sick relatives.

The 1892 exhuming of suspected vampire Mercy Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island became an international story – Bram Stoker based part of the Lucy character in Dracula on Mercy Brown. With 18 confirmed vampire cases, Rhode Island even become known as the “Vampire Capital of America.” The reason all of this happened was twofold: tuberculosis and decomposition.

The story of Mercy Brown influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Wasting away

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease that attacks the lungs (among other areas). Active tuberculosis kills about half of those infected and in 2018 it was the ninth leading cause of death worldwide (killing more people than Malaria or HIV/AIDS). In 19th century New England tuberculosis was the leading cause of death, killing an estimated 25% of the population.

Tuberculosis can develop over months or even years, slowly eating away at someone. A person with active TB develops a chronic cough as their lung tissue breaks down, their mucus starts to contain blood, they develop fevers, night sweats, and lose weight. Because of the weight loss the disease has been historically known as “consumption.” As the infected person wastes away they also develop ashen skin, giving them an overall sickly drained appearance.

Vampires, or, a lack of scientific understanding

The effect of tuberculosis (the slow draining of life) combined with some of the infected saying their deceased relatives were visiting them (as Almira Young claimed), was enough for some New Englanders to suspect there were vampires at work. Bodies of suspected vampires were exhumed to looks for signs of vampirism. Some of the corpses seemed have grown longer finger nails and longer hair, some were bloated, some had blood in their organs, while others seemed to have not decayed at all. These were surefire signs of a vampire … or were just normal parts of body decomposition.

As bodies decay they become dehydrated causing the skin to recede and shrink. This gives the illusion of longer fingernails & hair as the base of the nails and hair that was once under the skin is now exposed. The bodies that seemed to have not decayed at all were the ones of people who died in the cold winters of New England (as was Mercy Brown’s case who had died in January) where the cold slows the decomposition process. These unremarkable signs of decomposition were mistaken as proof of life after death to the untrained eyes of 19th century New England.

The dawn of a new era

The Mercy Brown story brought unwanted attention to New England. It was embarrassing that, while the light bulb was being invented and Henry Ford was building his first car, people were worried about folklorish undead monsters. The vampire panic rose and fell with the tuberculosis endemic of New England. Over time with advancements in science, and the dissemination of knowledge, belief in vampires faded away.

Added info: porphyria is another disease whose symptoms can be similar to vampire activity. It’s a liver disease that, for some, can cause sensitivity to sunlight (leading some to only come out at night) as well as sensitivity to garlic.

“Ask a Mortician” goes through the history of the New England vampire panic and the realities of tuberculosis in 19th century New England.

A crash course on tuberculosis.

Fiji Mermaid

The taxidermy oddity that attracted thousands of people to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.

In 1841 P.T. Barnum opened his American Museum in New York City. For 31 years the museum had been Scudder’s American Museum which was part science museum, part zoo, part history museum, and part collection of oddities. After Barnum bought it he took these ideas and amped them up to become one of the most popular attractions in America. With around 500,000 items in the collection the museum was both educational and entertaining – it was history and spectacle. Over its 14 year run the Barnum American Museum had 38 million customers at a time when the population of the US was only around 32 million.

Being a P.T. Barnum enterprise, marketing was a critical tool to its success. He transformed the facade of the building into a giant billboard for the museum itself. He had posters advertising (and exaggerating) the attractions inside. One of the first attractions he marketed, using most of the front of the building to do so, was the Fiji mermaid.

Barnum’s American Museum was one of the most popular attractions in America at the time.

The Little Mermaid

The Fiji mermaid was brought to America in 1842 by Dr. J. Griffin of the British Lyceum of Natural History. It was the mummified remains of a mermaid from the Fiji islands in the South Pacific. Barnum generated interest in the mermaid by sending anonymous letters to various newspapers talking about it. He even cooked up a story that he was trying to convince Dr. Griffin to exhibit the mermaid and that Griffin was reluctant. It was a sensation before it was ever even exhibited to the public.

Barnum negotiated to display the mermaid for one week but it proved to be so popular that it went on the road, touring southern states. Dr. Griffin gave lectures about mermaids and cited the ancient Greek idea that everything on land had a counterpart in the sea. At a time when new species were being discovered in the remote areas of the world perhaps a mermaid had finally been found.

Eventually the Fiji mermaid split its time between Barnum’s American Museum and the Boston Museum. Its fate is unknown as it went missing but it was most likely destroyed in either the fire that consumed Barnum’s museum in 1865 or the fire that consumed the Boston Museum in 1880.

The Fiji mermaid has become one of Barnum’s most famous humbugs (ie. hoaxes). It looked nothing like the beautiful mermaids in the advertisements.

A sucker born every minute

In truth, the “mermaid” was Barnum’s first hoax at his American Museum (his very first hoax was when he exhibited Joice Heth, a woman he bought, and claimed she had been George Washington’s former nurse … which she hadn’t been). At about 3ft long the mermaid was the taxidermy combination of a monkey torso and the tail of a fish (most likely a salmon). Far from being the beautiful humanoid mermaid seen in Barnum’s advertisements, it was a ghastly animal mashup. The Charleston Courier wrote that “… the Feejee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.”

Instead of originating in the Fiji islands, the mermaid actually was one of many created by Japanese fishermen. This particular mermaid was bought by the American sea captain Samuel Edes in 1822 whose son sold it to Moses Kimball of Boston in 1842. Kimball then leased the mermaid to Barnum for his museum. As for Dr. J. Griffin, he was actually Barnum’s associate Levi Lyman who was in on the ruse from the very beginning, pretending to vouch for the mermaid’s authenticity. Also there’s no such thing as the “British Lyceum of Natural History”. Nothing about the Fiji mermaid was real except the public’s excitement.

Humbug

There is a Barnum-esque blurry gray area between “hoax” and “entertaining joke”. While Barnum liked to categorize things like the Fiji mermaid as “humbugs” (which are things designed to deceive), he felt they were always in playful fun. Barnum wanted the audience, even when deceived, to still have a good time. He did not like deception at the expense of the public. For example he spoke out publicly (and testified in court) against spiritual mediums who tricked people out of money, lying to them about communicating with deceased loved ones.

Over the years numerous other Fiji mermaids have made the rounds in museums, curiosity shops, sideshows, and private collections. They’re made from all manner of materials (animal parts, wood, papier-mâché, wire, plastic, etc). You can find higher-quality ones for sale in shops that specialize in curious objects, but there are also cheaper ones on ebay. You can also learn to build your own.

Added info: The Jenny Haniver is a related taxidermy hoax. It’s a sea animal, frequently a ray or skate, that’s been modified to look like the mummified remains of a demon, angel, basilisk, etc.

Also, P.T. Barnum never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It was said by banker David Hannum who had purchased a hoax giant which he charged the public to see.

Barnum Museum curator Adrienne Saint-Pierre discusses the Fiji mermaid.

Learn some tips & tricks to building your own Fiji mermaid.

In the X-Files episode “Humbug” Agent Scully enters a curiosity shop where the Fiji mermaid gets mentioned. The owner of the shop also has a clever humbug of his own in the style of Barnum’s famous signage leading people to the Egress.

Friday the 13th

The superstition that’s the combination of two separate superstitions (and a lot of magical thinking).

Superstitions are ideas that unrelated things are connected in some supernatural way. They’re frequently practices that are thought to bring about good or bad luck. Knocking on wood, walking under ladders, black cats, four leaf clovers, etc. are all classic western superstitions. Astrology and other fortune telling methods have a similar kind of magical thinking. The superstition of Friday the 13th is a combination of two separate superstitions: Fridays + the number 13.

From the Norse gods, to the Last Supper, thirteen people at a table has made 13 an unlucky number.

The unlucky number

One of the earliest examples of 13 being an unlucky number comes from Norse mythology. Loki was the uninvited 13th god to attend a feast following the recent slaying of the god Baldr (who died because Loki had tricked the blind god Höðr into inadvertently killing him). Another unlucky dinner with 13 members was the Last Supper where Judas betrayed Jesus. This spurred a related number 13 superstition that dinners with 13 members are unlucky. The first person to rise from the table will be in store for ill fortune (akin to how Judas was the first to rise from the Last Supper and was met with ill fortune). However various workarounds include dividing the guests across two tables or just having everyone rise at the same time (which seem like pretty simple hacks).

Another reason 13 is considered unlucky is that it throws off the satisfying “completeness” of 12. There are 12 months in the year, 12 signs of the western zodiac, there were 12 gods of Olympus, the 12 labors of Hercules, the aforementioned 12 Nordic gods in attendance at the the meal following Baldr’s death, 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, etc.

Over time western culture’s fear of 13 has spread to a wide variety of outlets. Over 80% of tall buildings skip counting the 13th floor and instead call it the 14th floor. Hotels sometimes skip having 13th rooms, the 13th card in the major arcana of the tarot deck is the card for death, the 13th loaf of bread in a baker’s dozen was sometimes said to be for the Devil, cruise ships tend to skip having a 13th floor, in Florence some houses which should have an address of 13 are given 12 1/2, etc.

The superstition that Friday is unlucky is largely because of the Good Friday crucifixion of Jesus as well as other Bible stories.

It’s Friday I’m in … trouble

The fear of Friday has mostly Judeo-Christian origins. Jesus was said to have been crucified on a Friday (or perhaps it was a Wednesday). The start of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel were both said to have taken place on a Friday. Eve supposedly tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit, and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden, took place on a Friday. Further Cain killed Abel on a Friday. Unfortunately the Bible is silent on what calendar system was in use in the Garden of Eden or how they had Fridays at all.

Eating meat on a Friday is considered unlucky because it’s reminiscent of death and the crucifixion (but eating fish is apparently exempt from this bad luck somehow). Cutting your nails on a Friday is also considered unlucky for similar severing of the body related reasons. Over time Fridays became an inauspicious day to begin or finish things. Starting a voyage, starting a new job, finishing the production of an article of clothing, moving house, getting married, giving birth, etc. on a Friday have all been considered unlucky.

That said if you die on a Good Friday there’s a superstition that you go right to Heaven.

The 1868 Friday the 13th death of Rossini is one of the first instances of Friday the 13th being unlucky but the superstition became popular during the 20th century.

Two great tastes that taste great together

Bringing these two superstitions together seemed inevitable, the super-superstition of bad luck on Friday the 13th, but it’s relatively new. Friday the 13th is first mentioned as unlucky in the 19th century with the most famous example being the Friday the 13th, November 1868 death of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini.

Friday the 13th didn’t become more widely unlucky in pop culture until the 20th century. Most people credit the 1907 Thomas Lawson novel Friday, the Thirteenth, about a stockbroker who chooses that date to manipulate (and crash) the stock market, as the popularization of the Friday the 13th superstition.

But like all superstitions, an unlucky day & date combination is inconsistent and culturally specific. While English speaking countries think of Friday the 13th as unlucky, in Spain and Greece it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s supposed to be unlucky, but in Italy it’s Friday the 17th.

It’s all in your mind

Ultimately the idea that Fridays, or the number 13, or the combination of Friday the 13th, are in any way unlucky, is nonsense. If they were real they’d be universally held beliefs (not to mention some objective proof). Instead these three superstitions are mostly just inconsistent western ideas – people in the rest of the world are going about their lives unaware of the danger they’re supposedly in (and somehow surviving).

There is no evidence that Friday the 13th brings about an increase in unfortunate incidents or accidents. A 2011 study in the The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reviewed hospital emergency admission rates and found no significant difference between Friday the 13th to other days. In fact a 2008 Dutch study demonstrated the opposite may be true, that people are more cautious on Friday the 13th and as a result there are fewer road accidents.

The Friday the 13th movie franchise capitalizes on the superstition. Interestingly in Spanish speaking countries the movies are sometimes called Martes 13 (Tuesday the 13th) in keeping with the Spanish superstition around Tuesday the 13th, instead of Friday the 13th. Finally, the most important metal band of all time Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

Black Sabbath, the most important metal band of all time, released their debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

There are highs & (many) lows to the Friday the 13th movie franchise, but the disco theme song for Part 3 is something else.

Salvation Mountain

An outsider art environment in the California desert created as a testament to love.

Sitting in the dusty beige desert of southern California is a vibrant candy-colored art project known as Salvation Mountain. Created by Leonard Knight over a 27 year period it’s a 50ft tall 150ft wide monument to God. The mountain is constructed of bales of hay coated with adobe as well as tires, car parts, logs, and whatever else he could find. Covering it all is an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint (which was donated by supporters over the years).

Salvation Mountain is an example of outsider art – art made by an artist outside of the mainstream art world. Knight was a self-taught marginalized artist (but he never considered himself an artist). He was also a visionary artist in the sense that he had a spiritual / religious imperative. Knight was compelled to create Salvation Mountain (a name applied by others) as a testament to God’s love.

God is Love

Begun in 1984, Knight’s construction process was to work on a section, move to new areas, and return to old ones. The high-heat and dry desert conditions means that parts of the mountain are always in need of repairs. The mountain has an estimated 10-15 coats of paint on it, which adds to the structural stability. As for the subject matter there are numerous biblical passages & prayers painted on the mountain (John 3:16 and the Sinner’s Prayer), as well as painted biblical references such as the large Sea of Galilee at the base of the mountain. There are also trees and flowers found all around. While Knight was a nondenominational evangelical Christian, the mountain’s main message is agnostic of any particular faith which is that “God is Love.” This simple message is found all around the mountain.

A bale of hay that is waiting to be coated in adobe clay and painted. Given the conditions of the desert parts of Salvation Mountain are always in need of repairs.
There are multiple painted vehicles at Salvation Mountain, including the truck Knight lived in.

In 2000 Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site. Knight died / “went to meet his Mentor” in 2014. Today the mountain is cared for by the Salvation Mountain, Inc. nonprofit organization. The mountain continues to be a popular tourist draw.

“Dont overcomplicate love, lets just keep it simple.”

Leonard Knight

This 2013 video from Vice features Knight discussing his mountain and his message.

Desert Storm Trading Cards

The bizarre 1991 Gulf War trading cards celebrating weapons and the American military.

In 1990, after Iraq invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait, a coalition of Western forces mounted a response in defense of Kuwait (… and oil). The initial operation of the Gulf War was codenamed “Operation Desert Shield” which was followed by the combat phase of “Operation Desert Storm”. Around the same time the American trading card industry was reaching new highs. Trading cards were expanding beyond just sports. There were cards for TV shows, movies, bands, cartoon characters, etc. It was in this world that Desert Storm trading cards were launched.

A collection of cards from Topps Desert Storm series 2 including the “Desert Drink” card which discussed the benefits of staying hydrated.

For the children

In 1991 Topps produced the Desert Storm trading card series. There were 88 cards and 22 stickers with 9 cards & one sticker per 50-cent pack. There were cards of military leaders such as General Norman Schwarzkopf, political leaders such as President George H.W. Bush, as well as cards for vehicles, weapons, and other military equipment. Topps said these cards were not glamorizing war but instead were offering an “encyclopedic look at this military operation and its personalities and weapons …”.

As for being “encyclopedic”, the cards included numerous mistakes such as card 73 (“Machine Gunner”) which listed the 14 NATO member countries, but in 1991 there were actually 16 member countries (they forgot to list France and Iceland). Topps said their information was provided by the Pentagon and arms manufacturers, shirking any fact-checking responsibility.

Topps ended up producing three different Desert Storm card series, for a total of 264 cards, but they weren’t alone. A host of other companies got in on the action producing similar cards. Pro Set had 350 cards in their Desert Storm series with interesting cards such as Greenwich Mean Time, oil, as well as a card for the U.S. Constitution.

A collection of Pro Set Desert Storm cards including the “Greenwich Mean Time” card.

Strange days

Today the cards feel like a satirical take on America’s love of guns & patriotism – an odd relic of the early ‘90s. Critics at the time felt the cards trivialized warfare, that they were propaganda, and were desensitizing kids to violence. As for their monetary value, because of their popularity they were mass produced and so Desert Storm trading cards aren’t worth much. You can buy the entire Topps first series for $10.

Added info: at the same time as the Desert Storm trading cards Topps also produced Desert Shield baseball cards. The baseball cards were the same as regular baseball cards but with an Operation Desert Shield palm tree crest stamped on the front in gold foil. Also, after 9/11 Topps created the Enduring Freedom line of trading cards which included a collectible Osama bin Laden trading card.

Muffler Men

The roadside giants of the 1960s used to lure in customers.

Muffler men are the giant fiberglass statues found along American roadsides. For 10 years starting in 1962 the International Fiberglass company of California turned out hundreds of figures in a variety of styles. The first was a 20ft Paul Bunyan holding an axe for the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona but later figures included cowboys, Indians, astronauts, golfers, vikings, etc. While their heights ranged from 14-25ft tall they all tended to have a similar basic pose (because the tooling to create new poses was expensive). The basic pose was to have the arms extended to hold something (such as a car muffler, hence the nickname).

While these three muffler men are different in style the basic design is the same. The Paul Bunyan on the right most likely had an axe but now holds an American flag.

These roadside giants were sold as attention getters. Similar to Googie architecture, muffler men were built to catch the attention of drivers as they sped down the road. An American Oil gas station in Las Vegas installed a Paul Bunyan in the early 1960s and reported that their sales doubled after installing the giant. This was the beginning of an “invasion” of giants around America. The craze lasted for about a decade until the price of materials increased and the novelty wore off in the early 1970s. As for the price, a new character originally cost between $1,800 to $2,800 depending on the complexity, but today these giant pieces of Americana can fetch between $15,000 to $20,000 or more.

The ice cream man and the American Indian are basically the same design but with a few modifications. The Mortimer Snerd muffler man on the right is the same design but with a different head.

Added info: you can still find muffler men around America. This map from RoadsideAmerica shows you where to find them and what kinds of statues they are. You can also find more examples of these giants on Roadside Architecture as well as American Giants.

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!”