The War on Christmas Customs

Here’s another one to add to the list of “ideas that won’t happen.” In high school, a friend of mine and I hit upon the idea of writing an illustrated book of “unusual family customs.” Sort of a Martha Stewart idea guide gone horribly wrong: quirky and surrealistic customs that families could enact with great seriousness, raising their kids as though the custom was perfectly normal. In his book The Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman hits on one: the kids in the family are taught that, on presidents’ day, you are supposed to go to school and cosplay your favorite president. Other schoolkids did not understand why the child showed up claiming to be Millard Fillmore.

One of the jewels in our collection of ideas was the santa traps. The idea is, you build elaborate Rube Goldberg-style traps around the base of the fireplace, hoping to capture or even kill santa claus. That way, you get all the presents. Back in 2002 I mentioned this to someone I knew who had kids, and her husband thought the idea was so great that they actually did it – the youth contingent and dad kicked in and made a rubber-band activated plywood bear trap, which they put at the hearth of the fireplace, baited with cookies and a stocking.

Unfortunately, santa is on to this custom; the next morning, there were still presents around the tree, the cookies were gone, and the stocking for dad was hung – full of coal.

Look what google image search turns up! [source]

Apparently the kids (as kids do) went to school and bragged about how they almost killed santa claus…

I promise I’m not farming you for ideas; the book is never going to happen. Anyone got any ideas for other fun war on christmas family traditions?

Seinfeld’s “Airing of the Grievances” and “The Feats of Strength” [fest] are pretty good.

How about:

  • Decorate the Racist Uncle
  • Shock Grandma
  • “Who Got The Habanero-infused Draught


  1. cartomancer says

    I thought it might be fun to run festive tours for goth children to visit the three tombs of Santa – in Bari, Venice and Myra in southern Turkey. Perhaps leaving a fossilised mince pie at each one for the atmosphere of it.

  2. says

    Considering that the mainstream Christmas traditions are basically centered around buying and throwing out stuff, my suggestion would be to do some dumpster diving. In fact, this is exactly what I do at Christmas.

    Before Christmas countless spruce trees are cut down and brought to my city by Christmas tree sellers. Many of these trees are never purchased. On 31st December they are all thrown out. Sellers just leave those trees near dumpsters. So on 31st December evening I generally go out for a dumpster tour. I pick the prettiest (and largest) tree and drag it home. I don’t celebrate Christmas (at least not in the traditional sense) and I don’t put any decorations on my spruce tree (I don’t see anything particularly cool about plastic balls). It is just that I like the smell of spruce needles and I like having a big tree in the middle of my bedroom. There the spruce tree stays for most of the January. I keep my tree at home until needles start falling down.

  3. quotetheunquote says

    This may be just a variation on “Who got the habanero infused draught” (I’m just guessing what that means), but how about –

    “Christmas crackers Russian Roulette”: All but one of the Christmas crackers on the festive table makes a little bang when pulled, the “lucky” one makes a rather louder bang…

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Choose up two sides. One side builds a large goat statue out of combustible materials and tries to guard their statue. The other side tries to burn down the goat statue.

  5. says

    Reginald Selkirl@#6:
    Wow! That one is so good someone ought to do it!
    I can totally see a load of viking reenactors going to town with that idea. Naturally, there would be drinking involved.

  6. says

    Don Dueed@#5:
    The Living Nativity Scene Stampede.

    I love this one, too.
    “Grab the frankincense and run!”
    “What’s frankincense?”
    “I dunno, but grab it and run!”

  7. kestrel says

    This one is actually true: my grandfather used to stand out in the yard every Christmas Eve with a shotgun, and then claim he saw Santa and fire off a shot or two, scream out “Missed!” And then would try again. For about an hour. I’m sure the neighbors were charmed.

  8. says

    This may be just a variation on “Who got the habanero infused draught” (I’m just guessing what that means)

    I was just jumbling words for maximum surrealism. But I’d imagine that custom is played where everyone around the table is given a shot glass of either vodka or habanero-infused vodka. On the count of midnight, everyone downs their shot in a single gulp. The person who gets the hab-shot tries to act as though they didn’t. This process repeats until someone admits to having gotten the hab-shot.

    “Christmas crackers Russian Roulette”:

    I like that one. But plastic explosive is getting hard to obtain. Perhaps electric shock?

    I vaguely recall there is some country that has a holiday celebration in which trinkets are put in fruitcake (?am I imagining this?) so that celebrants may crack a tooth or get lead poisoning from the trinket. Maybe that was from a novel, I don’t recall.

    Hm, there’s another possibility:
    – The fruitcake is made with ritual objects in it
    – The Knife: during the course of the dinner, you must announce who in the room you wish you could kill. That person has to leave the party.
    – The Candlestick: whoever gets the candlestick gets a smack on the buttocks from everyone present
    – The megaphone: if you get the megaphone you must confess to an embarrassing secret
    – The cross (since it’s Xmas!) – if you get the cross you have to spend the rest of the party hanging from two big nails driven into the wall, balancing on a little foot platform, wearing only a towel.
    I know, it’s sick, but the whole concept of fruitcake needs reinvention.

  9. says

    This one is actually true: my grandfather used to stand out in the yard every Christmas Eve with a shotgun, and then claim he saw Santa and fire off a shot or two, scream out “Missed!” And then would try again

    That is great.

    You know, the VFW down in Philipsburgh have a WWII anti-aircraft gun. Perhaps a group of volunteers dressed like santa and elves, with some stuffed dead reindeer… It’d be a good photo op.

  10. kestrel says

    I think the photo op sounds awesome.

    Also since we’re supposed to make one up and I cheated and used a real one, how about a tradition of having Roast Reindeer for dinner? I realize reindeer is not generally available. But perhaps you could serve something your family does not normally eat, so that they don’t really know: venison, say, or lamb. I’ve known people who never ate anything but beef. It would be a great way to give them some new experiences. I could even see a version of a baked bread reindeer head, which you complete by stuffing an apple in its mouth, for those who are vegetarian.

  11. Ketil Tveiten says

    The combustible goat burning contest happens naturally each year in Gävle, Sweden. They make a huge goat out of hay, and most years some yahoo or another tries (and often succeeds) in setting fire to it.

    So in this case the teams are “some yahoos” vs “everyone else”.

  12. jazzlet says

    Marcus you aren’t making the putting of trinkets in food up, in the UK it is traditional to put a silver threepenny bit or in later years a six pence in the christmas pudding and some people took this further with other silver keepsakes, the size of something you’d put on a charm bracelet were you so inclined.

    The Allendale Tar Barrel is a New Year thing, but it’s pretty spectacular What that link doesn’t say is that there is a building in the village square and the guiser carrying their lit tar barrels parade right round the building through the packed square of drunken people. It’s amazing, we went on an icy clear night with the stars blazing overhead, just insane really.

  13. DonDueed says

    Marcus/Jazzlet: the Christmas pudding thing figured in one of Agatha Christie’s Poirrot stories. A dinner guest nearly broke a tooth on a “trinket” that turned out to be a large, real diamond — stolen, of course, and ultimately the key to solving a murder.

  14. says

    That’s right! I knew I remembered that from somewhere (I went through a summer of Agatha Christie books back in the 70s…)
    Sounds like a good tradition for practicing one’s Heimlich Maneuver.

  15. lumipuna says

    Have an undecorated Christmas tree and ritually mutilate it to prevent Zombie Jesus from coming back. (quoting the entire English Wikipedia stub on Finnish karsikko tradition)

    In the Finno-Ugric religion, a karsikko was a set of markings made on a tree somewhere between a deceased person’s home and their burial site, which they believed would prevent the dead individual’s spirit from coming back

    A karsikko was typically a pine or spruce tree near your home, middle part of the trunk stripped bare of branches, except one branch left pointing in the direction where you’d want the deceased person to fuck off. On the trunk you’d engrave the deceased person’s name or monogram.

  16. lumipuna says

    Also, maybe a nativity scene depicting the birth of Santa in an igloo or a lavvu*, surrounded by snow and ice and reindeer, with the North Star hanging directly above.

    *In Scandinavian tradition, locating Santa’s home not in North Pole but in Lappland where the reindeer association actually originates.

  17. says

    Random observation:

    The whole notion of trapping Santa to get all the presents is… it’s not just the perfect example of short-sighted capitalist thinking, it’s analogous to the best parables on that out there. Catch Santa and you get all the presents, sure – for THAT year, and then nobody anywhere gets any presents after that, including you. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons and the Golden Goose wrapped up in one festive package.

  18. says

    By the way, the trinkets in the pudding thing? If anyone really does that, be SUPER CAREFUL with it. Where I come from that’s a live annual tradition, but connected with Easter rather than Christmas: we do that with pancakes on ‘Fat Tuesday’, the day before Lent starts. There were trinkets, mostly coins, fried into the pancakes as little luck charms and whatnot.

    One year, my aunt put a finishing nail in one for my uncle, as a reference to the fact that he was a building contractor (civil engineering firm, specifically, so technically it should have been a piece of rebar or a chunk of concrete, but I digress). He swallowed it.

    My uncle was very very lucky – ultimately the thing passed without incident. But there was an extremely tense couple of days full of X-rays and close monitoring in the hospital. Stuff like this carries a high risk of puncturing the digestive tract, and if that happens you instantly have life-threatening sepsis.

    After this, my family stopped doing the silly thing.

  19. dougthebox says

    #12 Kestrel: I was in a nice restaurant a few days before Christmas, and I say the Christmas Day menus feature posted: Reindeer Steak.