Not all Christmas traditions are made up of wholesome carolling and milk and cookies. Cultures from around the world all have their own unique ways to celebrate Christmas, and we have rounded up some of the more macabre festive celebrations for you to enjoy! From visiting family graves, to dead birds and trapping witches in ornaments—we have Christmas Death Traditions for everyone this holiday season!
Christmas Death Traditions
Norwegian Christmas Witches
In Norway, it is believed that witches and other evil spirits become more restless at this time of year. While many are busy laying out cookies and milk for Santa, Norwegians hide their brooms on Christmas Eve to ward off witches. As legend has it, witches will come to your home to steal your brooms to ride around in the night.
Christmas Day Cemetery Visits
On Christmas day, the Irish visit cemeteries not just to pay respect to the dead, but to wish each other a happy holiday and maintain a sense of community. Honoring ancestors is very important to the Irish, so it is no surprise that Christmas, a family holiday, is about celebrating the living as well as the dead. Visitors replace old flowers with wreaths of holly and ivy, and some even leave notes and mementos at grave sites.
Witch Balls are hollow round glass ornaments that were originally hung in windows or around one’s home to ward off or even trap witches and evil spirits in 17th and 18th Century England. They were also popular with the settlers of New England, who sometimes filled them with holy water for added protection. Witch Balls are colourful and often have a string inside, resembling glass Christmas ornaments. The colorful balls were believed to attract the witch or evil spirit that would become trapped by the string inside. It is believed that today’s modern glass Christmas ornaments have a connection to these talismans against evil.
Spider Web Christmas Decorations
Decorating Christmas trees with spiderwebs is apparently not just for goths! This is a common Ukrainian tradition that dates back to a Ukrainian legend where a poor mother had no decorations for her family’s Christmas tree. After the children cried themselves to sleep, a friendly spider got to work and spun fancy webs to decorate the tree. On Christmas morning, the family discovered that the webs turned to gold and silver in the sunlight. To this day, Ukrainians decorate their trees with spider webs to bring good luck and good fortune in the upcoming year.
Victorian Dead Bird Christmas Cards
Victorians are known for their bizarre and macabre Christmas Cards, but the one that stands out the most are those with images of dead birds. These cards usually feature either a dead Robin or a dead Wren. The Robin symbolizes the New Year, and the Wren the old. But why are they dead? One theory is linked to the sentimentality of Victorians, and how a dead bird may call to mind the common stories of children freezing to death at Christmas. This idea is covered by John Grossman in his book Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas. There is also a connection to the Irish holiday Wren Day—a tradition we will cover below.
Christmas Eve Graveside Candle Lighting
On Christmas Eve in Finland, you can find families in cemeteries gathering to light candles, lay flowers and wreaths, and say small prayers for the dead. There are also special places within the cemeteries to light candles for family members buried far from home. This tradition is thought to date back to Pagan traditions around the Finnish harvest festival, kekri, but when Christianity came to Finland, this graveside candle lighting tradition moved to Christmas.
Feast for Souls in Portugal
In Portugal, there is a Christmas morning feast where sweets like ‘Bolo Rei’ (King’s Cake) are enjoyed. In this early morning feast, they set extra places for alminhas a penar, meaning “the souls of the dead”. Each family member gives an offering of food with the hope it will increase their good fortune. In some areas, crumbs are left on the hearth to ensure future bountiful harvests. After the meal, the dishes and remaining food are left on the table for dead ancestors to enjoy. We can get behind and Christmas Death Traditions with food!
Killing of a Wren
According to regional Irish tradition, December 26th, Saint Stephen’s Day, was celebrated by killing a Wren, placing it on top of a decorated pole, and taking it from house to house in a procession, singing and demanding money. This is known as “going on the Wren” or “Jenny Hunting”. The origins of this tradition are not clear, with some believing it is a direct reference to Saint Stephen himself, who was betrayed by a Wren, or to a legend involving wrens exposing hidden Irish villagers to the Vikings during a raid in the 700s. The last known tradition that involved a real dead Wren was in the 1930s in County Sligo and the Isle of Man. It is not celebrated widely today, but the Town of Dingle still holds on to the tradition.