Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bizarre and Fascinating Facts about Christmas

Christmas is one of the most popular holidays in the world, and its celebration every year is a major global event. We’ve all grown up with Christmas in our hearts, and have grown to love its many familiar traditions. That’s what makes the holiday so great — there’s just so much to love about it. In fact, even the not-so familiar facts are a lot of fun. Here are 32 things you might not have known about the holiday season’s climax:

Jesus Wasn't Born on December 25 — It’s a little funny how many people celebrate Jesus’ birthday without really knowing when it is. The actual date of Jesus’ birth has puzzled scholars throughout history; differing calculations have placed the special day on March 28, September 11, and November 18, among other dates. It’s widely believed that we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December because of the Catholic Church’s efforts to convert the masses. In order to gain more followers, the Church began to incorporate several Pagan beliefs and rituals into its practice. Among these was the Saturnalia festival, which ended on December 25. By promising the practitioners of Saturnalia that they’d still be able to celebrate their festival as Christians, the Church was able to welcome more people into the fold. Just so Saturnalia would have some Christian sentiment to it, the Church then moved Jesus’ birthday to the date of the festival’s end.

Not Just for Halloween — Many Ukrainian families decorate their Christmas trees with webs and spiders. This odd tradition has its origins in a popular folktale from Ukraine. According to the story, there was once a woman who was so poor, she couldn’t afford any decorations for her Christmas tree. However, she awoke one morning to find that spiders had trimmed her tree with their webs. To her surprise, the webs turned into silver and gold in the sunlight! Because of the tale, spider webs on Christmas morning have been regarded as a sign of good luck and prosperity.

Spider Webs, Vol.2 — Another version of the story above doesn’t think as fondly of spiders. In this version, the poor woman, determined to give her children a happy Christmas, puts her blood, sweat, and tears into surprising them with a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, spiders came and destroyed the tree while she slept, covering it in webs. The Child Jesus, having seen what happened, decided to spare the poor woman from heartbreak, and turned the webs into silver. It’s from this version of the story that tinsel became a holiday tradition.

Bah, Humbug!, Said Cromwell — Sometime between 1649 and 1660, the English Parliament abolished Christmas. The Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell believed that a the day celebrating Christ’s birth should be used for solemn reverence of the occasion, not for merry-making. Instead of the feasts and gift-giving, Christmas was celebrated with prayer and sermons from the clergy.

71 Years in the Making — Christmas wasn’t always one of the country’s national holidays. In fact, Alabama was the first to declare the day a legal holiday in 1836. The other states followed suit, but not as quickly as you’d think. Oklahoma was the last state in the country to declare Christmas a legal holiday, doing so in 1907. That means it took a whopping 71 years for Christmas to officially become a national holiday!

The Christmas Day Truce — True to the holiday’s spirit of goodwill to all, a brief Christmas truce was held during World War II. On midnight, December 24, 1941, firing from the German trenches suddenly stopped. To the surprise of the Allied forces, a German brass band began playing Christmas carols. German soldiers then came to the Allied lines bearing Christmas greetings. The ceasefire lasted a few days, wherein both sides sang, feasted, and exchanged gifts.

A Claus by Any Other Name — Santa Claus isn’t the only gift-giving spirit during the holidays. Different cultures have different present-bringers; while some differ from good old St. Nick only in name, others are an entirely different shape and size.

England calls Santa Father Christmas, whereas France names the jolly old soul Pere Noel. Some families in Italy, on the other hand, await a kindly old witch named La Befana. In some parts of Russia, children look forward to the grandmother figure Babouschka bringing their presents. In other areas of Spain and South America, gifts are brought by the Three Kings, who gave presents to the newborn Jesus.

Season’s Beatings — Hot Cockles was a popular Christmas game in the Medieval era. One player would be blindfolded and made to stand in the middle of the group. One by one, the other players would hit the blindfolded victim. The blindfolded player then had to correctly guess who it was that hit him, or else the game would go on. Strangely enough, this game was enjoyed during the holidays, up until people found their sanity in the Victorian era.

Dog Day Holidays — British dogs have reason to look forward to Christmas. According to surveys, roughly 70 percent of the furry old chaps get presents from their owners during the holiday season. Who said a dog’s life was a bad one?

Shopping Daze — lot of people tend to think that Black Friday (the Friday after Thanksgiving) is the busiest shopping day of the year, since it’s generally accepted as the kick-off to the holiday shopping season. However, most would be surprised to learn that it’s only around the fifth-busiest. The days where shoppers go their wildest are the Friday and Saturday before Christmas, proving that a lot of us really do put things off until the last minute.

Not-So Famous Words — Charles Dickens immortalized the phrase "Bah, humbug" in the well-loved story A Christmas Carol. Few people know that the words might not even have seen print if Dickens hadn’t changed his mind. His original plan was to have cranky old Ebenezer Scrooge say "Bah, Christmas" instead of the line we all know and love.

Sugar High — Candy cane is a holiday favorite, tickling the sweet tooth of kids and adults alike. People loved candy cane so much, candy manufacturers are all too eager to produce the popular confections. During the holiday season alone, the average production of candy canes is more than 1.76 BILLION pieces!

Smokey the Bear Would Be Proud — Every year, we light up our trees and homes with brightly-colored Christmas lights. We owe this tradition to Ralph E. Morris, who pioneered the use of the tiny bulbs in the Yuletide season. The reason he opted for using electrical bulbs was a practical one: he realized that they’d be less of a fire risk than candles, which were the popular choice in his day.

Not Quite the Elves You Were Expecting — Some families in Greece follow a notably different Christmas tradition. During this time of the year, they ask a local priest to toss a small cross into the village’s water. They also sprinkle holy water in the dark corners of their houses. This is done to keep the kallikantzari, devious little gremlin-like critters, away. Alternatively, it’s believed that the scent of a burning shoe or salt is just as effective.

Sticks and Stones — We’re all quite familiar with the Nativity scene. In it, the child Jesus is depicted surrounded by his family, a few animals, and the Three Kings inside a wooden manger. Historically speaking, though, the scene is all wrong. Back in Jesus’ time, the preferred place to keep animals was in caves, to keep them away from the intense heat of daytime. The wooden manger itself may be inaccurate, as stone was a more widely-used building material than wood was in those days.

More than Just for Kissing — Long before people locked lips underneath hanging mistletoe, the plant enjoyed a more revered existence. The early Celtics and Teutonic tribes believed it had divine powers, among which were the ability to ward off evil, heal wounds, and increase fertility. The plant was so sacred that it had to be cut with a golden sickle, and was not allowed to touch the ground.

The Un-Christmas Gift — Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson had a friend who very much disliked her birthday, which fell on December 25. As a parting gift, he stipulated in his will that he would bequeath his own November 13 birthday to that friend, so that her special day wouldn’t be overshadowed by Christmas.

It Takes Three — The image of Santa Claus as we know and love him today was actually the product of three different minds. The description of St. Nick was originally laid out in Dr. Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas, or what we know today as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, slowly evolved his elf-like Santa to closer resemble the version in the poem. The artist Haddon Sundblom added the final touch, changing the color of Santa’s outfit from green to red. The change was actually requested by Coca Cola, who had commissioned the artist to include Santa in their product labels. The red was meant to bring Coca Cola’s identity to the illustration.

It Takes Three, Part 2 — The familiar Christmas carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, was also the product of three creators. The carol started out as a poem written by Robert May to act as a promotional tool for the Montgomery Ward department store. Each kid who visited the store’s Santa Claus received a booklet in which the poem was printed. The booklet became so popular, more than 2 million copies were given away. Ten years later, May’s friend, Johnny Marks, suggested that the poem be put to music, and he composed the well-loved tune. Marks got Gene Autry to sing it, and the rest went down in history.

Eat Your Greens — Hungry during the holidays? Look no further than your living room. Christmas trees are actually edible, and can be good for your health. Pine nuts and pine cones have long been known to have decent nutritional value. Feeling a little more adventurous? Trying munching on the needles; they’re reportedly very rich in vitamin C.

(Don’t) Eat Your Greens — There are three general Christmas plants: holly, mistletoe, and poinsettias. We deck the halls with them, kiss underneath them, and decorate our home with them. It’s rather interesting to note, then, that out of these three well-known plants, poinsettias are the only ones that aren’t poisonous.

On Dasher, On Donner, On… Camel? — Ever since most of us can remember, Santa’s always gotten around on his magic sleigh and flying reindeer. However, in Syria, things can be pretty different. Those that follow a different tradition may not even be waiting for Santa at all; instead, Christmas gifts are said to be brought by the smallest of the Three Kings’ camels.

Pucker Up — The tradition of kissing underneath mistletoe traces all the way back to Celtic times. The druids believed that mistletoe was a sacred plant, and dedicated it to their goddess of love. It was from this belief that people began kissing underneath the mistletoe. In the tradition’s early days, every time a boy would kiss a girl, he would pluck one berry from the plant hanging overhead. He’d then give the berry to the girl. This continued until all the berries were gone, at which point the kisses would be, too.

Plucky Tree — Christmas trees have been a long-running tradition. However, not everyone could bring home a pine tree to decorate their homes. This led to the invention of the artificial Christmas tree in Germany. Unlike the ones we have today, which are made of plastic, the first artificial trees were made with goose feathers that were painted green.

What’s in a Name? — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has long been a Christmas mainstay. People of all ages embrace the reindeer with the glowing nose. Little do people know that the reindeer they’ve come to know and love was pretty close to being named differently by its creator. Other than "Rudolph", Robert May considered naming the star of his poem "Reginald" or "Rollo", but both names were eventually rejected.

Speedy Santa — Based on population counts, Santa has to visit over 42 million homes within a 12-hour period on Christmas Eve. With a little math, we see that St. Nick travels through over 900 houses per second. If you didn’t think that was fast enough, you’d be surprised to know that this figures only for North America and Europe; if you take the whole world into consideration, Santa travels even faster.

Right Song, Wrong Occasion — Jingle Bells may be one of the most popular Christmas carols out there, but it wasn’t originally meant to be one. The song actually has three verses more than what is usually sung, and in its entirety tells a story of a boy’s sleighing adventure. He takes a girl, Miss Fanny Bright, out on a sleigh, when he loses control and falls off. To his dismay, a rival comes along and makes fun of the accident. The song closes with the boy relating his story to a friend, and gives him advice on picking girls up on horseback.

In Space, No One can Hear You Jingle — Jingle Bells also bears the distinction of being the first song played in space. The song was played as the closing part to a prank, in which astronauts aboard the Gemini 6 reported a strange-looking satellite circling the Earth. It was led by eight smaller satellites, and was piloted by a strangely familiar-looking fat man in a red suit. The astronauts then whipped out a harmonica and sleigh bells and began to serenade Mission Control with the carol.

The Postman Always Rings a Billion Times — Despite e-greeting cards reducing the amount of Christmas cards being sent through the mail, tons of people still prefer to send their greetings through the old route. On average, the US Postal Service delivers roughly 3 billion Christmas cards a year! No wonder some of them are so disgruntled!

That’s a Lot of Forests — The centerpiece of a home’s Christmas decorations is almost always the Christmas tree. It’s no wonder, then, that we buy so many of them when the holidays roll around. According to a study by the National Christmas Tree Association, roughly 37.1 million real Christmas trees are bought in the country alone. Environmentalists don’t need to worry much, though — 2 to 3 seedlings are planted in place of every tree harvested.

Frosty Would Have Been Proud — In 1999, residents in the state of Maine set out to make the biggest snowman in history. They succeeded, creating a snowman that stood a whopping 113 feet tall! To put things in perspective, that makes the snowman taller than most houses, and higher than most average-sized buildings.

Elves Sell Toys, Too — In 1914, toymaker Charles Pajeau couldn’t quite put his finger on why his Tinker Toys weren’t selling as well as he’d hoped. In an effort to drive up interest in his inventions, he hired several little people to dress up as elves and play with Tinker Toys in a department store window during Christmas. The gimmick was a resounding success, and within a year, Pajeau had sold over a million sets of his toys.

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