From debt collection to assault, these are the Christmas rituals that time forgot

Today's Santa was invented in the late 19th century. Photo: iStock/PA.
Today's Santa was invented in the late 19th century. Photo: iStock/PA.

Whether it’s trees, stockings or those blasted Brussels sprouts, Christmas is virtually defined by its rituals and traditions.

Most of them promote peace on Earth and good will towards men, but a quick flick through the history books reveals festive folklore could have given us an entirely separate set of Christmas customs. Some are dark, some are dull, some are just plain odd.

Childermas – It’s hard to think of any activity less in keeping with the Christmas spirit than assaulting a child, but for some medieval households this was par for the course on December 28, otherwise known as Childermas.

A feast day marking the massacre of Bethlehem’s infants at the hands of King Herod, once upon a time, in some households, children would be ritually whipped in their beds to serve as a reminder of the tragedy.

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The Nativity Fast – Advent, or, as it should be known, the period of time in which Christmas decorations are acceptable, goes back almost as far as Christmas itself. Rooted more in asceticism than daily dollops of chocolate, older interpretations centred on fasting and abstention in the weeks running up to the big day.

Though still sporadically observed in Catholicism and a smattering of orthodox churches, mainstream appeal has dwindled to nearly nil. Amid the annual avalanche of candy canes, bacon rolls and turkey, we can’t think why.

Holming – These days, a festive sprig of holly comes with ivy and sweet singing in the choir. But in medieval times, it was a prelude to a much more violent set of practices.

Predominantly a Welsh tradition, ‘holming’ involved young men patrolling the streets and thrashing the bare arms of young women with holly branches. Many ancient traditions would be frowned upon in modern times, but this one would – hopefully – get you arrested.

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Quarter Day – It’s not uncommon for people to part with vast sums of money come the festive season. But in days gone by, many civilians would shell out a fortune to their landlords, not their relatives. December 25 was one of four ‘quarter days’ – administrative deadline days when debts were settled and rents were paid – which, for the less well-off, did not a very happy Christmas make.

Plygain – Another Welsh tradition, still practised in some parishes, there is much to admire about Plygain – a Christmas morning carol session filled with a capella harmonies and frighteningly powerful tenor voices.

For modern carollers, there’s just one teeny-tiny problem: the services are supposed to start at 3am.

Supernatural Santa – Now a rosy-cheeked, bushy-bearded grandfather, with a laugh like a foghorn and a belly like a trampoline, Santa Claus wasn’t always so jovial – or so human.

Today’s Santa was invented in the late 19th century and popularised by a 1930s Coca-Cola ad campaign, and his previous incarnations include elves, gnomes, and stern-faced spirits acting more as moral judge than benevolent patriarch. The whole creeping-down-the-chimney-while-you-sleep thing already feels suspect, and such tales do little to reassure.

Telling scary stories – In Victorian times, Scrooge wasn’t the only one seeing seasonal spirits – in Christmases Past, ghostly tales were an ever-present part of festive entertainment. Spooky stories come into their own during the long winter evenings, and famous fictional chillers, from Frankenstein to The Turn Of The Screw, have opted for a traditional Christmas setting.

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“When five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote humorist Jerome K. Jerome in his 1891 collection, Told After Supper. ‘Scary ghost stories’ also crops up in the lyrics of seasonal staple, It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of Year.