Are you happy with the holidays we currently have? Or do you think it’s time to bring in some new blood? We don’t necessarily have to start from scratch – there are dozens of holidays from history we could just revive. It turns out there are plenty of old-fashioned holidays people basically don’t celebrate anymore.
This list features alternatives to Groundhog Day, a Thanksgiving prequel, cross-dressing for fun and profit, and much, much more. Looking for a change from the tired old traditions your family has been pretending to enjoy all these years? Any one of the following old-school holidays is guaranteed to shake things up.
Plough Monday: Cross-Dressing and Fundraising
Plough Monday (the first Monday after January 6) used to mark the traditional start of the English agricultural year with some unorthodox partying/fundraising, but the tradition died off in the 19th century. A boy dressed as an old woman (called the “Bessy”) and man dressed as an animal (called the “Fool”), accompanied by roving musicians, would drag a plough from house to house to ask for money for the harvest. The celebration continued into the night with dancing, something called sword-dancing, drinking, and all-around revelry.
Old Clem’s Night: A Crazy Blacksmith Party
It essentially died off by the beginning of the 20th century, but St. Clement’s Day/Old Clem’s Night (November 23) formerly celebrated Pope Clement I, the patron saint of blacksmiths, in an absolutely bonkers fashion. The night began with the ritual firing of the anvil, a proto-fireworks display generated by packing gunpowder into anvils and then hammering away at them like a madman. The night continued with plenty of singing and drinking, but also a Halloween-like ritual where the blacksmiths would dress up like “Old Clem” and knock on doors, begging for beer, fruit, nuts, or money.
Lughnasadh: Three-Faced Gods and Trial Marriages
Lughnasadh (August 1), like Imbolc, is another of the old Celtic seasonal holidays. Lughnasadh marks the beginning of the harvest season and honors a three-faced god named Lugh. One of the most peculiar celebrations is the trial marriage ceremony: for one day only, by joining hands with your beloved through a hole in a wooden door and exchanging vows and gifts, you would be married for just one year and one day. At the next Lughnasadh, if you don’t want to be married anymore, you can just call it off without consequences.
Michaelmas: Stubble-Geese and Devil’s Spit
Michaelmas (September 29) is meant to celebrate St. Michael and all of the angels, but it’s also been associated since the Middle Ages with buying, selling, cooking, and eating so-called “stubble-geese,” which are geese that are leaner than the ones traditionally eaten at Christmas because they’re prepared at harvest time. Celebrating Michaelmas in the UK fell out of fashion over the last century, meaning it’s ripe for Americans to appropriate as another opportunity to gorge ourselves silly. Think out it as a warm-up to Thanksgiving. (Americans also love angels.)
Speaking of ripe: Michaelmas is also the last day blackberries should be harvested, according to English folklore. That’s why the day is also known as “Devil’s Spit Day”: because the devil supposedly ruins blackberries after this day by breathing fire and/or urinating on them.
St. Crispin’s Day: Revenge via Dummies
The feast day of the twin Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian (October 25) used to give people a fun and creative way to humiliate jerks. Villages in England into the late 1800s would create an effigy (a dummy, basically, like the one made for John Jay during the Revolutionary War pictured above) of the one or two people in the village they thought “had misconducted himself or herself, or had become particularly notorious during the year.”
This dummy would hang on a signpost until November 5, presumably infuriating the offender that inspired it, before being taken down and burnt.
Gŵyl Mabsant: A Drunken Welsh Mini-Olympics
The Welsh holiday of Gŵyl Mabsant, which celebrates a local parish saint, hasn’t been properly celebrated since the end of the 19th century. It’s a damn shame, too – the whole thing sounds like a blast, with highly unorthodox athletic competitions such as blindfolded wheelbarrow-driving, “fives” (a squash-like game, pictured, played against the church walls), and something called “old women’s grinning matches.” There was also football, bando (a field hockey-like game), and, unfortunately, cockfighting. The mix of alcohol, gambling, and crazy games gave the holiday a bad reputation, ultimately getting it shut down by religious leaders.
Imbolc: Groundhog Day, But with a Divine Hag
The Celtic holiday known as Imbolc (February 1) marks the beginning of spring and is one of the four major seasonal “cross-quarter” holidays that mark the midway points between the solstices and equinoxes. Imbolc also features the threat of winter personified as something a whole lot scarier and cooler than that tired old groundhog Punxsutawney Phil: Cailleach, a “divine hag” that gathers her firewood during Imbolc. If conditions are bright and sunny, that means the horrific old hag is gathering a lot of firewood, and we’re all in for a crappy, long winter. If the weather is foul, it means Cailleach is only gathering a little, and the winter should be short.
St. Mark’s Eve: Spying on Future Ghosts
Until the late 19th century, St. Mark’s Eve (April 24) – the day before the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist – was celebrated in English villages through a peculiar, superstitious ritual: if you were brave enough, you went and sat silently on your local church’s porch from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am. At some point, the ghost of all the townspeople that would die in the following year would supposedly appear and walk into the church.
Another tradition/method involved covering your hearthstone with ashes from your fire. By the next day, like Santa’s reindeer’s footsteps on your roof on Christmas morning, you were supposed to see the shoe prints of anyone in the house that would die in the next year. This naturally backfired:
In circles much given to superstition, great misery was sometimes created by a malicious or wanton person coming slily into the kitchen during the night, and marking the ashes with the shoe of one of the party.
Lammas Day: All Hail King Bread
Lammas Day (August 1) is like Christmas for bread-lovers: “lammas” comes from the old English hlafmaesse, which literally means “loaf-mass.” (As in, “Merry Loafmas!”) It died off as a holiday in the mid-19th century, but until then it was a festival of the wheat harvest, and thus a festival of bread. People would bring their first loaves of the season to be blessed, but they didn’t eat these special loaves: they would be torn into quarters and placed in the barn to protect the grain, like magical amulets.
Catterntide: Cakes, Cocktails, and Candle-Jumping
Sure, people still celebrate St. Catherine’s Day (November 29) to honor the martyr St. Catherine, pictured above looking particularly badass as depicted by Caravaggio. But Catterntide (also called Cattern Day), a celebration of Catherine as the patron saint of lacemakers, fell out of fashion around 1890 when the lace trade declined. It sounds like a great time: there were special spongy “cattern cakes” made for the occasion that were topped with caraway seeds, as well as a “cattern pie” made with mincemeat and coated with melted honey.
Part of the celebration also included a game called “leap-candle,” which involved ladies lifting up their skirts and jumping over a candle while chanting a variation of this rhyme:
The tailor of Bister, he has but one eye
He cannot cut a pair of green galagskins
If he were to die.
If leap-candle’s not your thing, part of the tradition also involves drinking a cocktail made with warm beer, rum, and eggs.
Allantide: Apples and Sadism
Allantide is an old Cornish festival celebrated on the nearest Saturday to Halloween. Like Halloween and other pre-Christian autumn holidays, Allantide is vaguely associated with remembering the dead and ushering in the winter. But the rituals associated with Allantide make it stand out.
Large, highly-polished “Allan apples” were given as gifts to family members as good luck charms, which is wholesome and great. Cool. So far, so good. But once the apples were in circulation, things got weird. Girls would put them under their pillows at night, Tooth Fairy-style, because they thought the apple would help them dream about the man they would one day marry. Sure!
A sick game was played with the apples, as well, a game that was basically a cross between bobbing for apples and that scene with the candle wax in 9 ½ Weeks. People would hang the apples on this suspended wooden cross with burning candles it, sort of like a hobo chandelier, and try to bite at the apples like a baby bird. If you were too clumsy or too slow, hot candle wax would drip all over your face. Happy Allantide!
Handsel Monday: New Year’s Day, Part II
Handsel Monday, the first monday after January 1, was an old 18th century Scottish tradition where masters would give their servants presents and give them the day off. Sweet!
“Handsel” is a Middle English word meaning good luck or good omen. The handsel present was typically money, meaning even the poorest servant had a little extra cash to spend on Handsel Monday. There were feasts, drinking, and music starting at midnight, with young people marching through town playing fiddles and tin horns.
Inevitably, things would get a little wild. In 1845, one minister noted: “The early part [of the holiday] is generally devoted to the less innocent amusement of raffles and shooting of firearms, which, being often old and rusty, as well as wielded by inexperienced hands, have occasioned some disagreeable accidents.”
Meal Monday: Feeding Hungry Students
We might have to change the name to Ramen Noodle Monday, but the old Scottish academic holiday known as “Meal Monday” is definitely ripe for a comeback. The “meal” part specifically refers to oatmeal, which was the “main grain” of Scotland by the end of the 18th century. Meal Monday was the autumn mid-term break, a time for students to schlep back home and replenish their supply of oats.
The tradition survived at least into the 1970s, but reportedly “nobody used it to fetch oatmeal.” Instead of just a day off, why don’t parents today surprise their kids with a big box of ramen noodle cups, Combos, Hot Pockets, and a Chipotle gift card? It could be a hit!
Andisop: Meteorological Fiddling
In the mid-19th century on the Isle of Man, a team of fiddlers spent the three weeks leading up to Christmas celebrating a holiday called Andisop. They would go door-to-door throughout the early hours of the morning, playing a song called “The Andisop” while knocking on doors, calling the hour, and reporting “the state of the weather” for a gratuity. It’s kind of like if Christmas carolers were actually useful.
In the 21st century, it might sound odd to get your winter weather report from a bunch of fiddlers, but don’t we all need a little whimsy in our lives? No word on what “The Andisop” sounded like, but it must have been a hell of a tune for them to play it that much.
Paul Pitcher Day: Protesting Workplace Sobriety
In the late 19th century, it was customary for tin workers, or “tinners,” in Cornwall to celebrate the eve of St. Paul’s Day (January 23) with a holiday called Paul Pitcher Day. The holiday supposedly commemorated the discovery of smelting, but it was mainly an excuse to protest rules prohibiting alcohol at work. The tinners would set water pitchers up “among the tin-works” and pelt them with stones until they were demolished. Then they’d go to the pub, buy more pitchers, and use them to drink the rest of the night.
The tinners didn’t just toss out the old pitchers: after a night of revelry, they would toss them into “every house where the door could be opened or had inadvertently been left so.” They did this while exclaiming, “Paul’s Eve, and here’s a heave!” The first “heave,” apparently, “could not be objected to” by the homeowner, but any subsequent heaves would leave the heaver open to “just punishment.”