From National Spaghetti Day to Count Your Button Days, International Talk Like Pirate Day, and Insurance Nerd Day, the modern world has an assortment of weird holidays. For as long as humanity existed, there have been celebrations, which means our ancestors also have their fair share of extraordinary traditions and festivities during their time. Some of them are fun to revive, while others you may choose not to commemorate anymore. If you’re curious what they are, fret no more as we got you covered! Continue reading below as here are the unusual ancient holidays and festivals that are guaranteed to shake you up.
Observed every first Monday after January 1st, Handsel Monday is an interesting mix between Christmas and the New Year and has been traditionally considered the winter holiday of Scotland. The old Saxon word “handsel” translates to “deliver into the hand,” perfectly describing the joyous day of gift-giving.
While children are mostly the receivers of holiday presents today, servants are expected to receive small gifts from their masters, usually in the form of money or tips, during the celebration. As it’s also a day when people never had to worry about work, there were also feasts, drinking, marches, and music that starts at the crack of dawn, so workers may get the most of the day.
Certain superstitions were also associated with the holiday. If the gift isn’t money, it has to be an object that isn’t sharp as it was deemed it can cut the good ties between the giver and receiver. Purses were a popular present, but never should be given empty as it was said to bring bad luck.
Now a lost celebration in Scotland, Handsel Monday was celebrated for over 500 years, from 14th to the 19th century.
Feast of Fools
Held on January 1st during the Middle Ages, the Feast of Fools served as the New Year’s Day celebration in Southern France, and eventually more widely. It was participated by the clergy, wherein they would select the “King of Fools” or a false pope or bishop. Other names were associated with the comic, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” “King of the Bean,” or “Abbot of Unreason,” depending on the location of the celebration.
During this mad feast, religious rituals, sites, and customs were mocked, while high and low officials changed places. People also cross-dressed, splurge on alcohol, gambled on the altar, and sang ribald songs. As such, the burlesque occasion deemed to be the version of Roman’s Saturnalia was officially banned in the 15th century but only died off completely during the 16th century.
Bals Des Victimes (The Victim’s Ball)
When the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution ended, Paris was finding its way to normality after the period of repression, massacres, executions, and bloodshed that wreaked havoc in the city. Part of the recovery of the people were parties intended to rejoice that they have survived.
One of the bizarre celebrations then was the Bals Des Victimes (The Victim’s Ball), exclusive balls which were believed to have been organized by the aristocrats. Invitees were those who were lucky to escape the guillotine or family members of the victims.
Women sported red chokers to denote the location where the blade had severed the heads of the victims. Short hair was also common, as prisoners lined up to be beheaded had their hair cut short first to ensure that the blade would go smoothly. Yet, greetings were arguably bizarre with guests said to be jolting their heads down to mimic the act of decapitation.
Festival Of Drunkenness
The Festival Of Drunkenness is an ancient Egyptian feast dedicated to honoring Hathor or the “The Lady of Drunkenness.” Ra, the God of the Sun, was said to have become tired of the human’s rebellious ways and cruelty, so he sent her daughter Hathor, who turned into a lion, Sekhmet, to destroy the people. Sekhmet treated her task with fervor, tearing up humans and drinking their blood.
Ra was happy at first but eventually regretted his decision after the other gods highlighted that he should cease the rampage before all the humans have been wiped and no one would remain to bear the lessons for the event. To stop Sekhmet, Ra asked Tenenet, the Goddess of Beer, to dye large amounts of brew like fake blood. It was then sent to Sekhmet’s path who drank it all, got drunk, and fell asleep. Thus, she woke up as the kindhearted Hathor, forgetting that she was on the verge of devouring humanity.
Celebrated on the 20th of Thoth (falling in mid-August), participants splurged endlessly in alcohol that they ended up sleeping on top of each other in the temple forecourt. Music and drums then awoke celebrators, who would then start speaking to and worshipping the goddess Hathor. While it was a holy event, it was one of Egypt’s most raucous festivities with lots of dancing, intimate scenes, and lighting of torches.
Old Clem’s Night
Traditionally celebrated on November 23rd, Old Chem’s Night is a welcome celebration between Halloween and Christmas, commemorating Pope Clement I, the patron saint of blacksmiths and metalworkers.
Festivities on this day began with a literal bang, as it entailed the ceremonial firing of the anvil, where blacksmiths filled them with gunpowder and then struck them with a hammer. Thus, generating a loud boom and proto-fireworks.
Blacksmiths then dressed up like Saint Clement, sporting a cloak, mask, and wig, followed by lots of drinking and loud singing. They would also knock from door to door, to beg for apples, pear, nuts, money, or beer, as a return for chanting rhymes. These metalworkers truly just enjoyed themselves on Old Chem’s feast day.
While the holiday is still observed in some places in the UK, it had essentially and widely died out at the start of the 20th century.
Plough Monday traces its origin to the late 15th century, celebrated on the first Monday after epiphany or the twelfth night after Christmas. It was the traditional beginning of the agricultural year where farmworkers go back to the field to prepare crops for Spring. Coming from winter when work was sparse, they collected money by dragging a decorated plough and visiting house to house.
The procession was playful and celebratory, joined by musicians, molly dances, a boy cross-dressing as a girl named “Bessy,” and a designated “Fool.” Laborers often used soot to blacken their faces, so they could hide from their employers. Though seemingly fun, the custom eventually petered out in the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.
St. Mark’s Eve
Halloween celebration perfectly falls in Autumn, with the surrounding greenery drying out and cold winter breath starting to arrive. However, there was an ancient holiday in England that brought the Halloween spookiness to spring from the 17th to the late 19th century – Saint Mark’s Eve.
On this day, a day before his feast, it was believed that St. Mark the Evangelist gives people the chance to see the souls of those that are fated to die the following year. In most references, a procession would happen from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am, with the ghosts appearing and walking into the church.
There are variations on how a watcher can witness the ghastly event, with some saying that he needs to fast, or that he must circle around the church prior to taking a position at the church’s porch. Actual sightings also varied as some said there were rotting and headless corpses involved in the macabre parade, though there were also recognizable wraiths. What’s certain is that this day is only for the brave.
True enough, our ancestors had their collection of unusual holidays and festivals. While many of them have dwindled into oblivion, learning about them is not only fascinating as these customary days help us learn more about the culture and beliefs from the past, see how celebrations have evolved through time, and value our own worldwide holidays today.