As Traditions Dictates: A Gift Guide
What book you should get for you horror loving friends based on their favorite holiday traditions
I set out to write this as a fun little article that could serve as a sort of gift giving guide for non readers. I wanted to connect horror books with holiday traditions, so a non reader could come here, find their significant other’s, family member’s or friend’s favorite holiday traditions and then see what book they might like based on that. I was going for a similar vibe to my earlier work in this Halloween article. Since I wanted to be inclusive and add in holiday traditions that I don’t know about, I did a lot of research and I ended up learning a lot. My husband might say I learned too much, since I won’t shut up about neat holiday things from around the world. So yes, this is going to be a gift giving guide, but I’m also going to include origins for some of the traditions I talk about and some variations of those traditions that are seen around the world.
I am not, by any means, all knowing. And there are SO MANY ways that people celebrate the holidays all over the world, there will be no way on earth that I cover all of the traditions. But I will highlight a few and give you a little background on them.
Let’s dig in, yea?
So if the reader in your life loves the Christmas tree tradition, they would probably like:
The Shining - Stephen King ( I know that everyone knows about this book and I know there didn’t need to be any Stephen King on this list, but it’s a solid book and worth a read if you haven’t already).
So the Christmas tree is a really interesting tradition that is really interesting when you look back through time. As far as we can tell, the christmas tree tradition as we know it started in 16th century Germany. Devout Christian Germans bought trees into their homes and decorated them, some made pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreen boughs and candles. It seems that Martin Luther was the first one to put candles on the tree. But Thomas Edison’s early partner, Edward Hibberd Johnson is credited with first adding strings of light to Christmas trees. And good on him, because let’s face it, Martin Luther’s candles on the tree weren’t exactly up to the fire marshal's code.
But long before the Christmas tree as we know it, plants that remained green all year were seen as special. Pagans brought in boughs of evergreen to hang over their doorways and to decorate their homes. There are a few beliefs with that. One being that evergreen was a symbol of health and prosperity. If you hung up evergreen in your house, you were bringing in those things into your home and ultimately into you. The other side being that evergreens were thought to keep away bad spirits, witches and ghosts. Bring in the good, keep out the bad.
Egyptians use green palm rushes in their homes during the solstice (when a god they worshipped called Ra would recover from illness) to symbolize the triumph of life over death. Celts used evergreen plants as a symbol of everlasting life and vikings in Scandinavia used them to symbolize Balder, their sun god. Romans used evergreens to mark the solstice, which meant that soon, their farms and crops would thrive again. Romans are thought of as having started the Christmas wreath tradition as well, with the circular shape representing eternal life. Wreaths eventually took on a Christian meaning with the circular shape representing Christ’s crown of thorns and the holly berries representing his blood.
Christmas trees are enjoyed in different variations by people of all religious and cultural backgrounds. It’s one of those things that, personally, just gives you the warm and fuzzies when you see one. For that reason, your Christmas tree lover should read (NOT JUST WATCH) The Shining by Stephen King. If you’ve only seen the film, please read the book. Not to be a cliche, but it really is so much better. The Shining has some kind of horror for everyone. You’ve got family horror, isolation horror, you’ve got some haunting type stuff, you’ve got some mystical stuff. It’s just something that we can all sit by a fire, drink hot cocoa and read this holiday season.
You can buy The Shining here.
So if the reader in your life likes to hang mistletoe, they would probably like:
Where the Dead Go to Die- Aaron Dries and Mark Allan Gunnells
Mistletoe is one of my favorite things about the holidays. I think it’s corny and cute, personally, and I have always thought it was a good innocent tradition.I love hanging up our little fake mistletoe ball up in the most used doorway in our house stealing cheek smooches from my whole family. But researching this tradition I learned a few surprising things.
Firstly, mistletoe is a secret villain. It’s not just a cute little plant we kiss under. It’s actually a parasite that steals water and nutrients from the tree that it attaches itself to. It can be on a variety of trees like lime, hawthorn and poplar but it is commonly found on apple trees. It can cause a lot of serious harm and disease to its host.
Even it’s name is not as cute as it seems. It comes from the Anglo Saxon words “Mistel” which means dung (yea like poop, i’m getting there, don’t worry) and “Tan” meaning stick. Mistletoe is called a dung stick because it is spread through bird poop that has been dropped onto tree branches. Super cute and fun holiday tradition, am I right?
So a super long time ago, the Celtic Druids from what is now Ireland and Scotland saw that, like the evergreen trees, mistletoe stayed green when other things had died in the winter months. The thought that the green leaves represented the fertility of their Mother Goddess and, sorry about this, the white berries on the plant represented the “seed” of the Forest God or Oak King. They used to go out into the forest and, using gold scythes, the men would chop them down. Meanwhile, the women were underneath the tree making mad dashes to catch these fertility parasites before they hit the ground. They believed that if they hit the ground, the energy the plant had would transfer back to the earth. Once they were taken and cleaned, they would be hung in doorways for protection against thunder, worn as an amulet for fertility or placed on headboards of beds to promote fertility.
Somehow this tradition made its way to 18th century England, where it transformed from baby making to the tamer kissing under a doorway. There are a few more pieces of lore attached to mistletoe from Norse Mythology with Figg and her son Baldur. Mistletoe is actually part of the reason that the Romans started calling the Druids “barbarians.” There was this ceremony the Druids did trying to cure infertility with mistletoe and bull sacrifice that the Romans weren’t really into.
So the modern mistletoe tradition is cute and fun, yes. But it has a dark history that will make you question the whole thing. It’s for that reason that the person who likes this tradition should read Where the Dead Go to Die. It’s a great winter time book with a unique take on zombies. It is heartwarming and terrifying and when I think back on when I read it, I get nice warm and fuzzy feelings about family and humility and empathy but then I REALLY think about it and damn, it’s a solid horror book. It is scary and based in human selfishness and meanness.
You can buy Where the Dead Go to Die here.
If the reader in your life wants to go caroling, you should get them:
BONE WHITE by Ronald Malfi
Caroling is a tradition that I thought I was not going to find anything neat on. BUT BOY HOWDY, WAS I WRONG. Okay so buckle up because carolling ties into the yule log so this is a two-for. So caroling ties back originally to wassailing. But, Kallie, what the heck is wassailing? I am glad you asked, my curious friends. So wassailing started in the 8th century. Wassail was used as a salutation before the 8th century, meaning “be in good health.” It was mainly used as an exchange between feudal lords and peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving. It wasn’t the same as begging, and even says so in the “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”
But over the years, in the western parts of England, they started going to orchards to wassail the apple trees so they might have better crops. They made a drink for this Wassailing of orchards that they named Wassail also (super original, my guys). Wassail (the drink) consisted of ale, honey, spices, meade or mulled cider. This drink stayed around, in fact if you have ever had a mulled apple meade, you have likely tasted something similar. They used to take the Wassail drink and anoint the trees in the orchards and in fact, that tradition can still be observed today in Western England.
In January (the twelfth night of Christmas) People take up torches and head to the orchard, where they crash pots and pans together to keep away bad forces. This tradition is celebrated differently in different areas but in some areas, there are twelve bonfires lit to represent the 12 zodiac signs. A thirteenth is built and never lit because it was the “Judas Fire” and it’s not allowed to be burnt. Other areas shoot shotguns in the air to make sure the bad spirits are gone.
The wassail drink was also thought to have been used to anoint the greak oak yule log. While the yule log was being cut down, the wassail was poured into a bowl and shared. A lot of variations of the wassail traditions have a wassail cup that everyone drinks from. When the aforementioned peasants would go to the feudal lords to wassail, the lord would often have a wassail cup to share with them.
This wassailing tradition turned into singing for food and little toys for kiddos. It made its way to South Wales and ended up being used in the Mari Lwyd folk custom. This custom is by far the most metal thing I have ever seen and I want to be the person that opens the door to Mari Lwyd wassailers one day. So it gets a little muddy here but hang in with me. Breaking down the words, Mari would represent the Virgin Mary and Lwyd, is *probably* from the actual Welsh word Llwyd which means grey. Given that the Welsh would have likely here the english word mare, like the horse, they could have taken Mari Lwyd to mean grey horse. Which is probably why, when they go out to sing and wassail with their wassailing cup, SOMEONE HAS A WHOLE FREAKING HORSE SKULL ON A STICK. They use it as a costume, the rest of the body being covered in a shroud with just the head being exposed. So you have the group of wassailers that are singing songs and drinking this meade stuff at your door and one of them is just straight up dressed as a horse skeleton thing. But my absolute favorite thing about this custom is that there is supposed to be a back and forth between the wassailers and the person whos home they go to. The exchange starts with the wassailers singing and asking for entry and the person at the door is supposed to sing back and say that they are denied entry. They go back and forth like this until someone relents. The wassailers are then given food and wassail and sent on their way. All i’m saying is that if my friends are reading this and you DON’T make this happen for me, I won’t be mad, but I will be disappointed.
Wassailing turned from a super metal and fun party to just plain old singing carols when a bunch of Puritan and Pilgrim party poopers said that wassailing was nothing short of armed home invasion and LITERALLY TRIED TO BAN CHRISTMAS in England and the American colonies (BOO, LAME). So people took their public forms of Christmas and holiday celebrations and took them indoors to their own homes. During that time, people turned away from the alcohol in wassail, and turned to the cookies and holly jolly tunes or carols.
Caroling is seen as tame nowadays, but it has really fun roots and is practiced in really fun ways around the world. You need to get your caroller Bone White by Ronald Malfi. It is a wintery book. It is unsettling and fast paced with a plot to knock you over. The cover is beautiful but shows nothing of the terror under the pages, just as caroling seems nice and fun but it’s history is vast and actually metal AF.
You can buy Bone White here.
If the love of your life celebrates with any of the traditions where naughty children are beaten, boiled or dragged off to who knows where, then they need:
CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD by Adam Cesare.
We’re going to start with the 13 yule lads of Iceland. Each of the yule lads has a different name and they each have their own ‘thing,’ kind of like the seven dwarves in snow white. You can look up each of their names here. A few highlights, for me at least, are: Spoon Licker- who licks spoons, Door Slammer-who slams doors and keeps everyone awake, and Door Sniffer- who has a huge nose and just wants stolen baked goods. The cool part about these lads is that each of them is, in a way, a father christmas. Kiddos in Iceland celebrate 13 nights of Christmas by leaving their shoes on windowsills. If they were good all year, then in the morning they get candy treats. If the children were bad, the yule lads gave them rotten potatoes (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a shoe). But the danger-to-children part of this iclandic folklore comes in with Gryla, her maybe-husband, Leppaludi, and Jólakötturinn, their lovable but unholy beast of a cat. So originally, it doesn't seem that Gryla was the mother of the yule lads until around the 19th century when she was connected to the yule lads. Gryla lives up in the mountains all year until christmas, when she comes down into homes and LITERALLY BOILS NAUGHTY CHILDREN ALIVE. She and her troll husband were cannibals, like most trolls and they ATE THE BOILED KID STEW. Their monster cat would roam the streets on christmas eve and STRAIGHT UP DEVOUR anyone who was not wearing at least one piece of new clothing. Super wholesome family fun, am I right?
Of course I have to take this space to mention my main man, Krampus. Krampus is from Austrian lore along with his counterpart, St. Nikolaus. Krampusnacht is December 5th, when kids in Austria would put a CLEAN pair of shoes in front of their door. If they were good, then St. Nikolaus comes and fills the shoes with candies and small toys. If they were bad, then they were chased, BEATEN, PUT IN A SACK AND THEN DRAGGED OFF TO HELL by Krampus. Kids in Austria were scared of Krampus because of the Krapmuslauf, which is basically a bunch of adults dressed as half goat-half demon figures just parade themselves around. Can you imagine being a little kid and seeing that? A bunch of anthropomorphic goat demons running around, knowing that if you were bad they would put you in a sack and drag you to hell? I would be good too. I’d much prefer some candies in my shoes. Over the years the Krampuslauf has turned into an actual parade with more than 400 Krampus figures dancing in the streets.
If your significant other is into scaring kids into being good, the Clown in a Cornfield is the book for them. A fight between the young and the old is just what they want to read.
You can buy Clown in a Cornfield here.
If you know a reader who celebrates Kwanzaa, they might enjoy:
SKEIN ISLAND by Aliya Whiteley.
Kwanzaa is a celebration that honors African heritage in African-American culture that lasts from December 26th to January 1st. This holiday and it’s traditions are pretty new compared to the other things you’ve already read about in this article. Kwanzaa was first created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University. He created Kwanzaa in response to the Watts riots.
Dr. Karenga researched different African harvest celebrations and combined parts of them to create these holiday traditions. Since Kwanzaa is one week long, Dr. Karenga put seven principles into place, one for each night of Kwanzaa. Each principle is meant to reinforce community among African Americans and a different principle is discussed each day while a candle is lit on the kinara, or candle holder. I have to say that I didn’t know about these principles before researching for this article and they are freaking beautiful. The principles are all about building up the Black community and leaving that community more beautiful and beneficial. Each day has different traditions, from gift giving, to drinking from a unity cup, to having a freaking massive feast. If your loved one loves Kwanzaa, Skein Island is perfect for them. Skein Island takes a look at the roles each of us play in our lives and how they form and divide us, much like the seven nights of Kwanzaa make people look at themselves in their communities and how they can help to build them up and not tear them down.
You can buy Skein Island here.
If you know a book lover who loves lighting a menorah for Hanukkah:
WHITE IS FOR WITCHING by Helen Oyeyemi is the book for them.
Hanukkah is celebrated from December 10th to December 18th. Hanukkah, which means ‘dedication,’ is the festival that commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple following the Greek occupation of it. Hanukkuh serves today as a holiday to remind Jews to rededicate themselves to the Jewish religion and culture. Menorahs, the oldest continuously used religious symbol in Western civilization, have nine branches (not seven, that’s a different thing), eight of them in a row and one off to the side. The ninth branch and it’s candle are called the shamash and they’re meant to light all of the other candles. But why are there 8 candles to be lit? The most famous explanation for this is that when the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors, entered the Temple to reclaim from the Greeks, they relit the ner tamid, a flame that symbolizes God’s omnipresence in our lives. But the Maccabees only found one jar of oil that should have only been sufficient for a single day, but it miraculously lasted for 8 days while a messenger was sent to secure more oil. The 8 days of Hanukkah are attributed to the miracle of that single jar of oil.
White is for Witching is perfect for this tradition because it is all about a home in Dover reclaiming itself from outsiders and strangers. To quote the book, “It is useful, instructive and comforting to show that you are not alone in your history.”
You can buy White is for Witching here.
If you know a reader who is all about that holiday food:
the Nightmare land Chronicles by Daniel Barnett are for them.
So we all know that there are some special foods we eat around the holidays. So i’m going to highlight some of the yummiest foods from all over the world that are traditionally eaten during the holidays. To kick us off, we have Christmas fried chicken from KFC in Japan. In the 1970’s, KFC put together arguably one of the weirdest holiday marketing schemes by telling all of Japan that fried chicken was a great way to celebrate the holidays. The chicken comes in festive party buckets and all of the Colonel Sanders donned festive Santa Claus hats. Today, 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC on Christmas eve.
Next up, we have something that I really want to try: LATKES. Admittedly, I had heard the word Latke before I researched this article, but I never actually knew what they were. Latkes are typically eaten during Hanukkah and they are potatoes, y’all (not the rotten-yule-lad-shoe-potatoes). They are fried potato pancakes cooked in oil.
Germany has the Weihnachtsgans, or a Christmas goose. Italy has The Feast of Seven Fishes, where seven different fish are made seven different ways but they also have Panettone. Panettone is a cake with candied fruit, chocolate, raisins and nuts. Costa Ricans make tamales, people in England make figgy pudding (just like the song), and in Bulgaria they serve up a pudding like dish called Kolivo. Mexico makes a salted cod dish called Bacalao a la Mexicana. We obviously can’t talk about holiday food and not mention the English tradition of the fruit cake.
Let’s talk cookies now. In Poland they make these amazing looking little jelly-filled cookies called Kołaczki. Greece has sweet orange zest cookies that are soaked in honey with walnuts on top that are called melomakarona. Austria has Linzer cookies with jam in the middle. Russia has tea cakes that look like little snow balls. Of course I have to mention French Macarons. Sweden has it on lock with Pepparkakor, or gingerbread cookies. Bolivia makes these cutie little meringue cookies called Supspiros. Germany has my personal favorite though, with the spice cookies called lebkuchen.
Is your tummy grumbling yet? You want more? Yea, that’s how each book in the Nightmareland Chronicles will make you feel. They are amazing horror books that leave you hungry for more.
If your loved one loves holiday parades as much as they love reading, they would definitely love THIN AIR by MICHELLE PAVER.
I could write for days and days and never write out every holiday parade from around the world. There are so many… so so many. So I am just going to name a few, but I highly recommend looking some more up because some of these parades look amazing. The Philippines has the Grand Festival of Lights. In Cuenca, Ecuador there is a festival called Pase del Nino that celebrates the birth of Christ. I’ve already mentioned the Krampuslauf in Austria. Ireland has an amazing tradition on the day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, where hunters called wrenboys dress up in masks and straw suits hunt down a small Wren replica to tie it to the top of a pole and show it off in the annual Wren Day parade. In Madrid, the Three Kings Parade is one of the most anticipated events. I highly recommend looking up pictures of the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, because it is COLORFUL.
In parades we always want to see what comes next and we never want them to end and it’s for those reasons that the parade lover in your life will love Thin Air. Thin Air is a ghost story that makes a reader want to know what happens next and will definitely leave a reader when it is over.
You can buy Thin Air here.
I want to take this space to highlight a few traditions from around the world that I learned about while I was researching for this article.
-The Scandinavians have a Yule Goat. They fashion goats out of straw and red ribbon, but they also SET THE FREAKING WORLD RECORD FOR THE BIGGEST STRAW YULE GOAT. But after Christmas they LIGHT IT ON FIRE. Please look up the photos of it because it’s amazing and very metal.
-In the U.K. you can go see the sunrise at Stonehenge on December 21st. But due to the global pandemic happening right now, they are going to live stream it, so we can all watch it from the comfort of our holiday pajamas.
- On December 7th at 6:00pm, Guatemalans “burn the devil.” They build bonfires outside their homes with a devil-like pinata on top to signify the Virgin’s triumph over evil on the Day of the Rosary.
-In Portugal, they have a holiday meal and household celebration called Consoada. They eat their meal with an empty chair to signify the family members that are no longer with them. Then, instead of clearing the table, they leave their leftovers on the table while they go to exchange gifts. They believe they are feeding any relatives who want to drop in from the afterlife.
-In Ethiopia, there is a hockey-like game called Ganna that is played around the holiday season that is said to be BRUTAL.
-In the Ukraine, they decorate their trees with spider web like ornaments to bring good luck in the coming years.
-No one actually knows why the Christmas Pickle tradition exists. But the most prevailing theory is that in the 1880’s Woolworth stores started selling glass ornaments from Germany and some were in the shape of different fruits and vegetables. Someone apparently made up the story that the Christmas pickle was a very old German tradition stating that whichever child found the Christmas pickle ornament first, got to open their gifts first. The only problem with that is that most Germans had never heard of the Christmas pickle!
-In Venezuela, there are people that roller skate to mass on Christmas. I couldn’t find a ton of information on this one, I just really love the visual of a bunch of people skating up to church for the holiday service.
If that isn’t enough for you, my co-Worm Richelle, of @shereadshorror, put together a huge and solid list of winter horror books (minus Stephen King books). Most horror readers that I know tailor their TBRs to what is happening around them. For example, in October, we read Halloween books, in the Summer, we tend to read campy slashers etc. So most everything on Richelle's list of winter horror books would be a great winter pick for the horror consumer in your life. And socks. I have never met a reader who doesn’t like a good pair of cost socks.
No matter how you celebrate the holidays, or even if you don’t, a book is always a great gift. It’s my hope that this article and gift guide can give you a gift idea for the horror lover in your life and help you learn some random facts to store in your brain for when you awkwardly need them at parties.
Note: Thanks go to my fellow Night Worm, Donnie Goodman for the title of this article. You can find Donnie here.