Twelve Fun Facts About Christmas

Alex Long, CBS Cleveland Intern
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1. Reason for Choosing December 25th — Christ’s Birth Shares the Date with a Pagan Pantheon: 

(Photo credit: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Christmas, Christianity’s most popular respite of celebration,  was not always in December. In fact, for the Church’s first few centuries Christmas was not even significantly marked on the calendar. You might now be thinking: “Well, that’s quite odd. I thought Jesus was born in December and Christmas is the celebration of his birth?” Hold tight. From our modern perspective, it is hard to comprehend the winter wonderland we call December without Christmas punctuating it, however, antiquity lumped Christ’s birthday bash alongside Epiphany, one of the Church’s first established feasts, in early January. In the early centuries there was direct opposition to assign the last days of Christianity’s calendar year to His birthday celebration, moreover, it was blasphemous to even contemplate honoring Christ with the same birth celebration as pagan gods traditionally were.

So, what now? When do we party? Speculations on the date begun to arise around the 200s C.E. with dates thrown out like March 20, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, January 2 and January 6 because (spoiler alert) actual records had been long lost. The eventual settling on December 25, perhaps around 273 C.E., emerged from a convergence of concern for associating Christ’s birth with pagan ideals and the Church’s association between God’s son and our celestial sun. Late December was already host to the celestial celebrations of natalis solis invicti (Latin for  “birth of the unconquered sun”), the birthday of Mithras (the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness”), and the winter solstice.

The Church, seeing pagans worshiping deities akin to their own in direct exaltation to “the true deity” (the celestial sun), commandeered late December and decidedly appropriated pagan tradition for the introduction of their new festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In 336 C.E., Roman Emperor Constantine cemented Christianity as the empire’s favored religion with Western Christians’ first celebration of Christ’s birth ensuing that same year on December 25. Initially, Eastern churches contended with their Western brethren for the date on which to commemorate Jesus’ birthday for they first chose January 6 instead of December 25. Over time, however, they have come alongside their Western kin to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25 and His baptism on January 6.

2. Bright Idea — The Origin of Yuletide Decorative Lights:

(Photo credit:FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit:FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Holiday lights as we know them today have come far from their humble pagan beginnings. Festival lights during the winter season were initially associated in direct appropriation by Roman New Year celebrations. Fast-forward from the early centuries of Rome into mid-1600s Germany where lights, then wax candles, were placed on the branches of Christmas trees. In the late 1800s, Edward Johnson, who then worked for Thomas Edison, fostered in the use of electricity for Yuletide decoration on his personal Christmas tree. Slowly since, the general public would purchase similar electric lights for their homes and trees. The first mass production of electrical strand lights, that people could easily attach themselves, came from Ever Ready in the early 1900s, with General Electric quickly improving upon the invention around the same time. In 1917, Albert Sadacca and family started distributing stringed lights designed specifically for Christmas trees. The National Christmas Tree in 1923 had around 3,000 lights on it which further popularized electric Christmas tree lights. Today, Christmas tree light traditionally include: icicles, LEDs, and flashing Christmas lights.

3. Origin of the Tree — Humble Evergreen Turned over to Holiday Pomp and Circumstance:

National Christmas Tree

A vast amount of speculative theories surround  the ultimate origin of modernity’s tradition of a decorated Christmas tree. Customs of erecting decorated trees during wintertime can be traced back to Christmas celebrations within Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany, however, the latter parallels modern traditions. It is more common to associate our beloved evergreens within pre-Christian winter rites and festivals because, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

From yet another cultural tradition, our modern decorated conifer may be identified as parallel to the “tree of paradise” from medieval mystery plays that took place on December 24 which, in various countries, is the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve. In these plays a tree decorated with apples and wafers, in direct Biblical allusion, was used as a setting. This iconographic prop was later placed within individual homes, but the perishable decorations were replaced with a more permanent garnishes, like embellished bulbs and spherical ornaments.

The late 1800s saw ornamented trees in homes that could afford them, and spread to a wider acceptance later in the century due to emigrating Prussian officials. In the 1900s, European nobility adopted the seasonal symbol in their royal courts furthering the spread of this ever-adapted wintertime tradition. North America began to decorate their evergreens by means of German connections within the States and Canada’s Germanic occupation. Popular culture of the 1960s made way for the public consumption and presentation of decorated trees for Christmas celebration. Modernity ushered decorative progression for trees which now include tinsel and garland alongside the antiquated use of fruits, candles, bulbs, and handmade ornaments.

Trees, once exclusively natural, have evolved and can now be purchased in an artificial alternative. Artificial trees were originally produced in 19th Germany to amend the continued devastation of deforestation, and were made of green dip-dyed goose feathers. Modern artificial materials include PVC (polyvinyl chloride), aluminum, fiber optics, and brush bristles.

4. Fruit Cake — The Legacy of Holiday’s Actively Avoided Bakery Brick: 

(Photo by Barry Batchelor/Anwar Hussein Collection/Getty Images)

(Photo by Barry Batchelor/Anwar Hussein Collection/Getty Images)

The earliest recipe for this culinary assault resides in ancient Rome, it lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed into barley mash. The bakers during the Middle Ages sought to make this cake more edible by adding honey, spices, and preserved fruits.

Fruit cakes began to proliferate all over Europe. Recipes varied greatly across the different continent throughout the ages depending on available ingredients and church regulations.  Becoming more palatable still, the 16th century incorporated sugar from the American Colonies making fruit cakes affordable and more popular. The addition of sugar in these cakes became a catalyst for the mass consumption of candied fruit because people saw the preservation power sugar held in regard to produce. Adaptations of this recipe may also include a liberal drenching of alcohol which enhances the shelf life ten-fold. Because the entire holiday season isn’t long enough to rid your home of this fruity intruder, right?

This actively avoided treat continues to span the global culinary collective from places like the Bahamas, Canada, France, and Switzerland to Germany, Italy, Romania, the United Kingdom, and the Unites States. Traditions of giving these baked abominations as gifts can be traced back to the Teutonic feasts of ancient Rome.

5. Breaking and Entering — The History of Santa Claus:

(Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

Our jolly intruder, also known as Saint Nicholas, St. Nick, Santa, Santa Claus, and Father Christmas, is a legendary figure in Western folklore who brings present to the good little girls and boys during the late hours of Christmas Eve. The modern-day mythical miscreant has been distilled from three poignant individuals from our Western antiquity:

1. Saint Nicholas of Myra: This gracious fellow was a Greek Christian bishop who had a notorious inclination to bestow gifts upon the poor and needy, most famously the gift to three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian man of suitable dowries so they would not have to begin lives of immoral deviance. He was always depicted bearded in canonical robes. He is the Christianized extension of paganism’s All-Father figure Odin (see below).

2. Dutch folklore’s Sinterklaas: This figure, often called De Goede Sint (The Good Saint), or de Kerstman (The Christmas Man), is a serious, elderly old man in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg that dons a full beard, lengthy white hair, a long red cape over a white bishop’s alb and red stola, a red mitre, and a gold shepherd’s staff. Sinterklaas carries the book of Saint Nicholas, which contains the good/naughty status of each child, and administers gifts accordingly on his white-grey horse. The date for giving gifts was December 6, but Protestants upon reformation changed it to December 24. In this region, gifts are given on Christmas day without the help of Sinterklaas.

3. Germanic paganism’s Odin: He was a major god to pre-Christianized Germanic peoples and many parallels have been drawn from this figure to our present-day depiction of Santa Claus. Odin was recorded to have led a great hunting party through the sky during the Germanic holiday of Yule which was surprisingly celebrated at the same time as Christmas is now. According to two 13th century Icelandic books, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, He rode upon an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, that could leap great distances. He was given many names to describe his appearance in Skaldic poetry: Síðgrani, Síðskeggr, and Langbarðr all translating to “long beard,” and Jólnir meaning “Yule figure.” Children would be rewarded with gifts and candy if they left carrots, straw, or sugar in their boots for Sleipnir to eat. 

4. Britain’s Father Christmas: This figure, dating back as far as the 17th century, is a spirit of good cheer at Christmas and was portrayed as a jolly bearded man in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He was the “Ghost of Christmas Present” character in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

5. Scandinavia’s Tomte: Also known as Nisse, this figure, birthed in the 1840s, began to deliver presents in Denmark around Christmastime. Tomte was a short, bearded man dressed in grey with a red hat. This folkloric being was inspired by the Santa Claus  traditions that began to spread into Finland, Norway, and Sweden by the 19th century and it began to replace the Yule Goat lore.

Santa Claus is the mixture of pre-modernised descriptions of a gift-giving figure from folklore and church history. Modernization of Santa Claus furthered in the British colonies of North America where the name “Santa Claus” was directly Americanized from Sinterklaas in 1773. Santa has lost his pious garb in present-day characterizations, but has always maintained a full beard, white hair, and some sort of rich, red apparel and his noble steed. As modernization began to appropriate this Yuletide figure he became increasingly more heavyset, thanks largely to 19th century American cartoonist Thomas Nest.

Popular culture and charity foundations have reinforced Santa Claus’ benevolent nature by his direct association with Christmastime philanthropy. Early 20th century marketing strategies sought to rid Claus of any presence of green in his clothing for white and red aligned better with the Christmas advertising of The Coca-Cola Company, White Rock Beverages, and Puck magazine.

6. Origin of the Holiday Card:

The first Christmas cards were illustrated in London during the 1840s by John Callcott Horsley. His initial design was a picture of a family drinking wine together behind a banner stating: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You. From: (space left blank for personalization).” Horsley printed over 2,000 cards and sold them for a shilling each. Early cards rarely depicted winter and religious themes, instead they were decorated with icons associated with Spring. The most popular designs were that of humorous and sentimental images of children and animals.

Louis Prang was the first to offer printed cards in America around 1875. With the invention of the postcard, cheap imitations drove printers out of business and lent an end to Victorian-style cards. Throughout the 20th century, printing cards became a profitable business for many stationary manufacturers. Naturally, the nature of a card’s design progressed as time did; design themes began to represent specific time=periods and events instead of benign tradition. Religious images and risque humor remain the most popular themes in Americanized holiday cards.

The advent and rise of e-mail and telephones drastically lowered the amount of holiday cards given, with the average dropping from 29 to 20 by 2004 alone. Christmas cards account for over half of the greeting card sales volume, with almost 669 million cards sold each year in recent holiday seasons.

7. The Season to Be Shoppy — Estimated Amount of Money Spent This Year During the Holiday Season:

 (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Amount per Individual:

6%: <$100
24%: $100-$299
23%: $300-$499
16%: $500-$699
31%: $700+

42% say they will spend less, with 10% insisting that they plan to spend more.

It is forecasted that an average of $1,035 per person will be spent on holiday-related furnishings, gifts, food, non-gifts, decorations, entertainment, socialization this year.

The expected number of gifts continues to decline:

2012: 12.8
2011: 14.7
2010: 16.8
2009: 18.2
2008: 21.5
2007: 23.1

8. Most Popular Traditional and Contemporary Christmas Songs:

(Photo credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Top Ten Traditional Christmas Songs:

1. White Christmas (1942, 1947) – Bing Crosby2.  The Christmas Song (1946, 1953, 1961) – Nat King Cole
3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949, 1957) – Gene Autry
4. Sleigh Ride (1950, 1959) – Leroy Anderson
5. A Holly Jolly Christmas (1964) – Burl Ives
6. The Little Drummer Boy (1958, 1965) – Harry Simeone Chorale
7. Do You Hear What I Hear (1963) – Bing Crosby
8. There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays (1954) – Perry Como
9. Frosty the Snowman (1950) – Gene Autry
10. Mistletoe and Holly (1957) – Frank Sinatra

Top Ten Contemporary Christmas Songs:

1. White Christmas (1954) – Drifters
2. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958) – Brenda Lee
3. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (1963) – Darlene Love
4. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1975, rel. 1981) – Bruce Springsteen
5. Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984) – Band Aid
6. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1971) – John and Yoko
7. Jingle Bell Rock (1957) – Bobby Helms
8. Run Rudolph Run (1958) – Chuck Berry
9. Blue Christmas (1957) – Elvis Presley
10. Little Saint Nick (1963) – Beach Boys

9. Poinsettia — Origin and Significance:

The poinsettia plant is culturally indigenous to Mexico and Central America and is well-known for its Yuletide-colored foliage. This important red and green plant was introduced in the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1825.

The Aztecs first used this plant to produce red dye and medication, but is known in modern-day Mexico and Guatemala as “Noche Buena” meaning “Christmas Eve.” The simple plant began its humble association with Christmas in 16th century Mexico. Legend tells of a small girl who was not able to give a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. By divine inspiration she gathers weeds and placed them in front of a church altar where they are then transformed into beautiful poinsettias, and from then on Franciscan friars included these plants into their Christmas celebration. Religious tradition furthers this association by placing a metaphor on the poinsettia: red symbolizes Jesus’ blood sacrifice, and the star-shaped leaves represent the Star of Bethlehem.

In North America they are used for decoration in homes, churches, offices, stores, parks, and elsewhere. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day in the United States and they can be purchased in participating grocery, drug, and hardware stores. The rumored toxicity of the poinsettia stems from urban legend and is a hyperbolic stretch of the truth. The plant’s sap and latex can cause allergic reactions, skin and stomach irritations, vomiting if ingested, and temporary blindness if introduced to the eyes. 22, 793 reported cases to the American Association of Poison Control Centers have resulted in zero fatalities as most poinsettia exposures are in accidental small doses which do not require medical treatment.

10. Holiday Stocking Traditions Around the World:

China: Muslin stockings are hung for Dun Che Lao Ren.

America: Tradition originated from Clement Clark Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, illustrator Thomas Nest, and writer George Webster in the 1800s.

Canada: Japanese oranges are traditional fillers for stockings.

France: Shoes, instead of stockings, are set out for Le Pere Noel.

Europe: Tradition began with everyday socks being used for the arrival of Saint Nicholas, but quickly evolved into specialized Christmas stockings being used.

11. Lest We Forget Rudolph — Santa Claus’ Reindeer:

 (Photo credit: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

You know…

Dasher, and Dancer; and Prancer, and Vixen. Comet, and Cupid; and Donner, and Blitzen. But do you recall the most famous of them all? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! After all, he had a very shiny nose. And who could deny that?

These names of Santa’s beloved reindeer that we have all come to know and love, except for Rudolph — we only love the little guy when we need him, derive from the 1823 Clement C. Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, with Rudolph being added as ninth-in-command by Robert L. May’s Christmas story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Donner and Blitzen’s names come from the Germanic words for thunder and lightening, and can also be spelled “Dunder” or “Donder,” and “Blixen” or “Blixem.”

Rudolph came to light in the late 1930s when May wrote his heart-breaking story for publish by the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores to be sold to children during the holidays. Rudolph’s story has been immortalized in popular culture and adapted in various forms.

The use of reindeer to pull Santa’s gift-laden sleigh derives directly from the mythological lore of pre-Christianized Northern Europe, as their wintertime gift-giving elite donned a loyal steed upon which they rode to deliver overnight joy to deserving children.

12. Chimney Tradition:

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Santa Claus’ clandestine entry through a household chimney is shared among the pantheon of Western seasonal gift-givers. In norse tradition, the All-Father Odin would enter an abode through chimneys and fire holes on the winter solstice. In the Befana tradition of Italy, the gift-bearing witch trips down a home’s chimney covered head-to-toe in soot. The tradition of a Christianized Saint Nicholas, initially depicts the saint throwing coins through a window, but later evolved into a travel down the chimney due to locked windows.

Early folklore characterized the hearth as a place where elves and fairies brought gifts to the house through this primitive portal for its significant source of beneficence. Present-day American tradition replaces Santa Claus and his elves for these mystic beings on Christmas Eve. Western religious globalization has removed beings and individuals from Nordic lore with Christianized figural appropriations.

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