Holiday Traditions and Etiquette

A Bûche de Noël, the tastiest of logs[via Wikimedia Commons]

While holiday traditions are not etiquette, strictly speaking, they carry a lot of etiquette associations. After all, the only difference between trick or treating and begging is that one is sanctioned as a single evening of fun with a lot of etiquette rules and the other is considered pretty rude.

Christmas/the late December period has many old traditions, some of which have fallen out of favor. Here are some Christmasy traditions you may not be familiar with, with some etiquette pointers in case you find yourself faced with one.

Yule Log

The origin of the Yule Log is in Scandinavian midwinter festivals, providing lots of light which to drink by. It was imported to England and other northern European countries over time and became a symbol of Christmas. Traditionally, you would light the Yule Log with a scrap from the previous year’s Log. But you had to wash your hands first, as touching the Log with dirty hands was disrespectful. Then the log had to be kept burning for twelve hours- this could be difficult as no one was allowed to tend to the fire until everyone was done eating the lengthy Christmas feast.

These types of Yule Logs are uncommon today, however, the French make a delightful Christmas cake called a Bûche de Noël (Christmas Log), which is a cake that is decorated to look like a log. My personal favorite modern day Yule Log is the log that is burned on TV with Christmas carols playing (I grew up in a house without a fireplace, give me a break!) which I watch every Christmas morning.

Mistletoe

Everyone knows that if two people stand under some mistletoe, they must kiss. What you don’t know is that mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and when two enemies met under some, they had to stop fighting for one day. This eventually led to the custom of hanging it in a house and kissing beneath it in friendship or romance. While this can leads to lots of fun and frolicking, remember, if a person doesn’t want you to kiss them, don’t! Mistletoe be damned! Even Washington Irving wrote that every time mistletoe was used for kissing, one of the berries must be plucked from it and once the berries were all gone, no more kissing! Also beware mistletoe if you have pets in the house, because it can be poisonous to dogs and cats.

Boxing Day

Americans may be unfamiliar with Boxing Day, but it is still an official holiday in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. And despite the name, it has nothing to do with throwing out the boxes your Christmas presents came in. Basically, Christmas gifts were exchanged between friends and family on Christmas day, and then people gave gifts to their servants and other people of the lower classes on December 26. There is a lot of dispute about the origin of the name, but most ideas revolve around putting money or goods into boxes as gifts. This practice does have a modern counterpart in holiday tipping (a topic far too huge to discuss in this particular post), but unfortunately, we don’t get a whole extra day off for it.

La Befana

I really love witches (obviously), so I was quite excited when I discovered that instead of Santa Claus, a witch brought presents to good little boys and girls in Italy. La Befana traditionally comes on January 6 (Epiphany) which is when the Three Wise Men arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Apparently she drinks wine (don’t forget to leave some out for her!) and will sweep your floor, which to me, sounds way better than a fat dude eating all your milk and cookies.

The origin of La Befana is that she was a woman who gave the Three Wise Men shelter on their journey. They invited her to join them, but she declined. Later, having a change of heart, she set out to find the Wise Men and Baby Jesus with some small presents for the baby and her broom to help clean up. However, she never found them and has been searching for them ever since, leaving presents for the children on her way.

Christmas markets in Italy sell La Befana doll-decorations. I have one and I love that it can do double duty for Halloween AND Christmas.

The Real War on Christmas

Not a tradition, per se, but did you know that the Puritans heartily disapproved of Christmas as being frivolous (and rightly pointing out that December 25 had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus). When they Pilgrimmed it over to America-to-be, they brought the dislike with them and were able to ban Christmas entirely in Boston from 1659-1681, charging 5 shillings to anyone who seemed extra merry that day.

After the Revolutionary War, Christmas continued to be seen with some suspicion as being too English. In fact, the first session of Congress was held on Christmas Day in 1789.

BTW, Christmas wasn’t even a federal holiday until 1870 when President Grant was trying to find cheerful way to unify the North and South.

Tell me about your favorite holiday traditions in the comments!

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The Great Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays Debate

Happy Holidays is appropriately neutral, perfect for an elementary school sign. [ via Wikimedia Commons]

There is a great debate about whether it is rude to say Merry Christmas to everyone you meet in December because they might not celebrate Christmas, or it is rude to say Happy Holidays because it is too generic. So what is an uncommonly courteous person to do?

First off, quit lecturing people about your preferences! Laying into a poor cashier at Target for not using your preferred greeting (because they are psychic you know! And not at the beck and call of corporate regulations!) makes you a bad, rude person. Full stop.

Secondly, please expect that in fairly neutral environments like stores and businesses, people are going to go with the most neutral greeting possible. Also if you live in a fairly diverse city, you are probably want to stay on the neutral side with most people. 74% of Americans may be some variety of Christian (from heavily practicing to not-practicing-at-all), but that is not the case in places like New York City, so you are much more likely to run into people who don’t celebrate Christmas than in a small town where you know most of the people do. Even Miss Manners points out that Happy Holidays is perfectly reasonable given that almost everyone gets Christmas Day and New Years Day off from work, thus everyone should have happy holidays.

There is also no reason why you can’t keep your greeting neutral with strangers and deck the halls with all the Merry Christmases you want with people that you know celebrate. You don’t have to say the same thing all the time. It’s okay.

Also, I give people a break to say Merry Christmas on ACTUAL Christmas day. It’s one day and it’s a fact that it is indeed Christmas, just like someone saying Happy Solstice on the 21st or Happy Valentine’s Day on February 14, even if you don’t personally recognize those holidays. I think people are less bothered by it than if they have to hear Merry Christmas every day from Thanksgiving until December 25.