WTF Fun Fact 13254 – Eating Herring on Ash Wednesday

Did you know this random historical fact about Mardi Gras week? One of its many traditions is eating herring on Ash Wednesday!

Why do people eat herring on Ash Wednesday?

In some countries, it is traditional to eat herring or other salty fish on Ash Wednesday. Some believe the salt helps absorb the alcohol consumed on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.

The tradition is particularly popular in Germany and other European countries. There, they believe that eating herring can help to prevent a hangover.

However, there is little scientific evidence to support this claim. It remains unclear how effective eating herring actually is in preventing a hangover. Nonetheless, the tradition persists as a quirky and amusing part of Ash Wednesday in some parts of the world.

Other random traditions

In addition to the tradition of eating herring or other salty fish on Ash Wednesday, there are other quirky traditions from around the world.

In some parts of England, it is traditional to eat pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s actually known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. Historians believe this tradition originated as a way to use up rich ingredients like eggs, butter, and sugar before the fasting period of Lent began.

In Germany, it is traditional to burn old branches or tree trunks on Ash Wednesday. Germans call this custom “Strohfeuer,” which translates to “straw fire.” Burning old branches is meant to symbolize the burning away of sins and a new, fresh start.

In some parts of the Philippines, it is traditional to attend a “Pabasa.” This is a 24-hour recitation of the passion of Christ. The Pabasa is often held in a private home or chapel and is accompanied by singing and other forms of devotion.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day. It marks the start of the season of Lent, which culminates in the celebration of Easter. It falls on the first day of Lent, which is always a Wednesday, and is observed by many Christian denominations, including Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists.

The name “Ash Wednesday” comes from the practice of marking the foreheads of worshipers with ashes. People make the ashes by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. They are a symbolic reminder of the mortality of human beings and the need for repentance and forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday and Carnival traditions that culminate in Mardi Gras have always been linked. These mark the end of the revelry and the beginning of the penitential season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday and the traditions of Carnival and Lent evolved together over time. The earliest references to the observance of Ash Wednesday date back to the 8th century. In fact, we can trace the roots of Carnival back to ancient Roman festivals celebrating the coming of spring. Over time, these two traditions became intertwined and evolved into the celebrations we know today.  WTF fun facts

Source: “‘Haringhappen’: the Dutch tradition of eating raw herring” — Aronson Delftware

WTF Fun Fact 13228 – The Lupercalia

Each year the ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia on February 15th. The Romans originally called the festival Februa, and it acted as a purification ritual for the city.

Why did Romans celebrate Lupercalia?

The Romans associated Lupercalia with fertility, renewal, and revelry. But they also conducted it under the eye of a group of priests called Luperci.

The origins of the Lupercalia festival aren’t entirely clear. But they may have something to do with the myth of the she-wolf that nursed the abandoned brothers Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome). The Romans also associated the festival with the god of fertility, Faunus.

In Rome, March was the start of the New Year

According to Encyclopedia Britannica (cited below):

“Each Lupercalia began with the sacrifice by the Luperci of goats and a dog, after which two of the Luperci were led to the altar, their foreheads were touched with a bloody knife, and the blood was wiped off with wool dipped in milk; the ritual required that the two young men laugh.

The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the sacrificial animals and ran in two bands around the Palatine hill, striking with the thongs at any woman who came near them. A blow from the thong was supposed to render a woman fertile.”

The Romans performed the sacrifice at the cave where the she-wolf supposedly suckled the founders Romulus and Remus.

The end of the festival

In 494 CE, Pope Gelasius I banned the Lupercalia because it was a pagan festival.

Some believe he tried to replace it with the Church’s Feast of the Purification (Candlemas), on February 2nd. But that holiday was likely established earlier.

Many people try to make the connection between Lupercalia and St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th. And while the holiday may have picked up some minor influences from the Lupercalia, the creation of that holiday came much later.

Regardless, Romans likely celebrated the Lupercalia for close to 1200 years. (However, academic Agnes Kirsopp Michaels has made the case that the festival only goes back to the 5th century B.C.)  WTF fun facts

Source: “Lupercalia” — Encyclopedia Britannica

WTF Fun Fact 13138 – The First New Year’s Celebration

Much of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, but the main calendar alteration that paved is one made by Julius Caesar. In some sense, the first new year’s celebration can be dated back to his reign – 45 BCE, to be exact.

Altering the calendar

In the 7th century BCE, the Romans introduced a calendar that followed the lunar cycle. Of course, people didn’t have these things hanging on their walls. The calendar was mostly helpful in planning crops and collecting taxes.

While the lunar calendar eventually fell out of sync with the actual seasons and needed some tweaks, there was a bigger problem. Politicians would add days to the calendar at will, mainly to extend their reigns or mess around with political terms.

When Julius Caesar became dictator of Rome, he decided to change things. His calendar was solar-based.

According to (cited below), “In designing his new calendar, Caesar enlisted the aid of Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, who advised him to do away with the lunar cycle entirely and follow the solar year, as did the Egyptians. The year was calculated to be 365 and 1/4 days, and Caesar added 67 days to 46 B.C., making 45 B.C. begin on January 1 rather than in March. He also decreed that every four years a day be added to February, thus theoretically keeping his calendar from falling out of step.”

January 1 was also a way to honor the Roman god Janus, the double-faced god (looking backward and forward).

What was the first New Year’s celebration?

So, the first January 1 that marked the new year wasn’t exactly a celebration so much as a bureaucratic decision. However, people would still offer sacrifices to the gods.

There were no ball drops and bubbly and no New Year’s resolutions. Still, 46 BCE is the first year New Year’s day started on January 1.

Months were renamed when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, but the calendar was still largely intact.

However, the “Celebration of New Year’s Day in January fell out of practice during the Middle Ages, and even those who strictly adhered to the Julian calendar did not observe the New Year exactly on January 1. The reason for the latter was that Caesar and Sosigenes failed to calculate the correct value for the solar year as 365.242199 days, not 365.25 days. Thus, an 11-minute-a-year error added seven days by the year 1000, and 10 days by the mid-15th century.”

Calendars are far more complicated than most of us realize!

The second New Year’s correction continues the explanation: “The Church became aware of this problem [of the calendar not lining up to the solar year], and in the 1570s Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with a new calendar. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar was implemented, omitting ten days for that year and establishing the new rule that only one of every four centennial years should be a leap year. Since then, people around the world have gathered en masse on January 1 to celebrate the precise arrival of the New Year.”

Celebrating the New Year goes back to 2000 BCE, when the Mesopotamians celebrated the vernal equinox towards the end of March. If you really want to play fast and loose with definitions of NYE celebrations, you could go back to the Babylonians in 4000 BCE and their 11-day, end-of-March festival called Akitu.

But if you’re looking to trace New Year’s Day back to January 1, you have Julius Caesar to thank for that. WTF fun facts

Source: “The Julian calendar takes effect for the first time on New Year’s Day” —

WTF Fun Fact 13038 – Men Spend on Halloween

Halloween spending continues to rise, with even our furry friends getting increasingly involved. Of course, they’re not the ones who spend money on the holiday. In fact, the biggest spenders are men. A 2018 National Retail Federation (NRF) survey found men spend on Halloween at higher rates than women.

Halloween spending

According to the most recent NRF Halloween spending report, “Participation in Halloween-related activities will resume to pre-pandemic levels, with 69% of consumers planning to celebrate the holiday this year, up from 65% in 2021 and comparable to 68% in 2019, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics. With the spike in participation, total Halloween spending is expected to reach a record $10.6 billion, exceeding last year’s record of $10.1 billion.”

Consumers plan to spend about $100 a piece on the holiday in 2022. That’s down from an all-time high of $103 last year.

And what are they spending it on? The NRF says “The top ways consumers plan to celebrate include handing out candy (67%), decorating their home or yard (51%), dressing up in costume (47%), carving a pumpkin (44%) and throwing or attending a Halloween party (28%). Similar to last year, one in five plan to dress their pet up in a costume.”

What do men spend on Halloween?

The last time the Halloween spending survey was broken down along gender lines appears to have been 2018. That survey (cited below) found that “Celebrants are planning to spend an average of $87. Although men and women plan to purchase the same festive items, men plan on spending $14 more, on average, than their female counterparts.” They were also more likely to find costume inspiration on social media sites like YouTube.

The costumes may be the factor that pushed men’s spending up. “Women are much more likely than men to celebrate by carving pumpkins and decorating their homes. Men, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to attend a party.” Who doesn’t want to look their best for those Instagram photos?  WTF fun facts

Source: “2018 Halloween shopping behavior” — National Retail Federation

WTF Fun Facts 12690 – The Official Creation of U.S. Memorial Day

The U.S. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971 with the Uniform Holiday Memorial Act, however it has a history dating back much farther. The long title of the act that created Memorial Day is “An act to provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and for other purposes.”

The Act is identified as Pub.L. 90–363, 82 Stat. 250 and was actually enacted on June 28, 1968, though it didn’t “take effect” until 1971. Of course, people celebrated, but creating a national holiday requires some extra time to work around business schedules since it would be a federal holiday and an official day off for federal workers. The travel industry played a role in lobbying for the Act in order to increase the number of 3-day weekends for Americans to plan vacations.

While the act may have been passed in part for political and financial reasons in Congress, to many Americans it was (and is) an important day of acknowledgment for soldiers past and present. At the time, the war in Vietnam was still raging as well, and this didn’t have heavy support on the homefront.

What is now “Memorial Day” started not long after the U.S. Civil War (which makes sense, since it claimed more lives than any other conflict in American history), and in many places was called originally called “Decoration Day.” In 1966, the federal government named Waterloo, New York the “birthplace of Memorial Day.” (But if you read the next “Fun” Fact, you’ll see why this was problematic for many people.)

It was (and IS) a day to celebrate all the members of the military who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. A number that stands at around 1.3 million people. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Memorial Day” —

WTF Fun Fact 12601 – The Origin of Gingerbread Men

People ate well in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Ok, it was British food, but the desserts were good.

Decadent royal banquets were stocked with sweets like marzipan and shaped into elaborate designs of castles, animals, and even other foods. The queen also had a personal gingerbread maker.

At one of these events, she had this gingerbread maker bake cookies to resemble the foreign dignitaries she had invited. Prof. Carole Levin, an expert on Queen Elizabeth I’s court surmised that in a time of political turmoil, the amusing gesture may have even been a part of diplomacy. (We just hope the cookies were flattering and the people they resembled had a sense of humor because it’s easy for those sorts of things to backfire.)

While we don’t know which came first, around the same time, there was another, very different use of gingerbread “men.” Folk doctors (which were more along the lines of what we might think of as witches) would “prescribe” them to women looking for love. According to Levin, the woman would buy the cookie and attempt to get the man she had her eye on to eat it. They were believed to be imbued with magic that would make the man fall in love with the cookie-giver.

We’re not sure how often it worked, but it’s not NOT true that the way to some men’s hearts is through their stomachs.

The delicious-smelling cake had been around for centuries before all of this, but baking them into the shape of little people is a culinary curiosity that traces back to a specific time and place. – WTF fun facts

Source: “The Surprising Reasons Why Gingerbread Men Became a Holiday Classic” — TIME Magazine