Christmas. Arguably, it is our most celebrated holiday.
Christmas. Arguably, it is our most celebrated holiday. We attend church services. We send greeting cards. We serve up holiday dinners and exchange Christmas gifts. We are surrounded by colorful decorations and engulfed by the sounds of Christmas carols. But what do we really know about any of those traditions? What do we know about Christmas? We went to a handful of books that detail the origins and meanings of Christmas traditions. Read on to find out 20 fun facts about the holiday.
1. Why does Santa wear red?
OK, this isn't the most important thing to know about a Christian holiday. But it's the title of a book, and it's intriguing.
Think St. Nicholas - jolly old St. Nick - instead of Santa. He was the bishop of Smyrna. Then think of the color of a bishop's cape.
Anyway, red is the way Norman Rockwell saw it, and red is the color Coca-Cola wanted when it pretty much created the modern image of Santa in 1931.
2. It's just a day.
Granted, it's a special day. The story of it is told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But the Bible doesn't specifically say the baby Jesus was born on Dec. 25. Different dates have been debated. Pope Julius I finally decreed Dec. 25 as the official date for the celebration of Christ's birth. It already was a date at the center of a pagan holiday that featured parties, feasts and gift-giving. So the rest of us fell into line.
3. Christmas is not just our holiday, of course. It's celebrated by Christians throughout the world.
Santa gets around on Christmas Eve. Here are ways he says "Merry Christmas" in different languages: Feliz Navidad (Spanish), Froehliche Weihnachten (German), Joyeux Noel (French), Kala Christouyenna (Greek) and God Jul (Swedish).
4. There are traditional ways of looking at Christmas.
"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year," Charles Dickens wrote in "A Christmas Carol."
And there are odd, but somehow uplifting, ways of seeing the celebration.
"A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm," muses Garrison Keillor, "and we all go through it together."
There also are disturbing holiday thoughts.
"There is a remarkable breakdown of taste and intelligence at Christmas-time," wrote humorist P.J. O'Rourke. "Mature, responsible grown men wear neckties made of holly leaves and drink alcoholic beverages with raw egg yolks and cottage cheese in them."
5. We all have our own family traditions for holiday meals. The classic middle-class Victorian Christmas dinner menu included roast goose, red cabbage, Yorkshire pudding, plum pudding and mince pie.
6. There was a little confusion in holiday celebrations at first. For example, the Christmas carol "Jingle Bells" was composed in 1857 as a song to help celebrate a Thanksgiving celebration in a Boston Sunday school class. Supposedly, it was so popular that it was sung again on Christmas.
7. Decorated Christmas trees in homes date to 1605 in Germany. But the first American patent for a Christmas tree stand was not issued until 1876, and stands didn't hold water until 1899. The first electric Christmas tree lights were sold by General Electric in 1903. So strands have been tangled for more than a century.
8. Mistletoe is an upwardly mobile parasitic plant that grows on oak and other trees, but it has wound its way into Christmas culture as an excuse to kiss. It seems it used to be a symbol of peace and was hung over doorways to ward off evil. Visitors were given a welcome kiss. It really only has kept the holiday smooching going in England and the United States.
9. If you're tired of trading Christmas cards, blame Louis Prang. The German-born Prang turned his attention to Christmas cards in 1875 and started printing them in his Roxbury, Mass., shop. His cards typically were of nativity scenes, family gatherings, nature and Santa. He held design contests to increase the cards' popularity, apparently with great success.
10. In no particular order, here are - one man's opinion - the 10 best Christmas movies of all time: "A Charlie Brown's Christmas" (1965), "A Christmas Carol" (1951); "Dr. Suess: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" (1966), "Home Alone" (1990), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), "The Miracle on 34th Street" (1947), "A Christmas Story" (1983), "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989), "The Santa Claus" (1994), and "White Christmas" (1954).
11. Bing Crosby's rendition of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," recorded in 1942, sold some 50 million copies - the best-selling single in history.
12. Here's another odd take on a Christmas tradition, a dinner prayer by cartoonist Berke Breathed.
"Dear Lord, I've been asked, nay commanded, to thank thee for the Christmas turkey before us - a turkey which was no doubt a lively, intelligent bird - a social being capable of actual affection, nuzzling its young with almost human-like compassion. Anyway, it's dead and we're gonna eat it. Please give our respects to its family."
13. Santa is a man of many names. Just in the United States, Santa also is called St. Nick and, sometimes Kris Kringle. He's called Father Christmas in England, Christkindli in Switzerland, Pere Noel in France, Babbo Natale in Italy and Weihnachtsmann in Austria.
14. In lists of "15 Great Gifts" for him and her, she apparently longs for perfume, pajamas, yoga classes, a yoga mat, days-off coupons, purse, cookbooks, heating pad, shoes, a massage, diamond earrings, pearls, an evening bag, gift certificates and collections of vintage teacups. He would like power tools, martini shakers, a toiletry bag, aquarium, electronic organizer, toolbelt, wallet, antique watch, digital camera, money clip, all-in-one screwdriver, Swiss army knife, custom-made shirt, catalog gift certificate and season tickets to some sports team.
15. Here's some important reindeer trivia.
* There are about 5 million reindeer in the world.
* Santa's ninth reindeer was originally named Rollo - and then Reginald - before Robert L. May decided on Rudolph in his 1939 song.
* "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is the second best selling carol after "White Christmas." (You know you were wondering.)
16. Candy canes started as white sticks used to decorate Christmas trees. It was not until the 20th century that they were given red stripes.
17. If you want a holiday "downer," consider Joel Waldfogel's theory about "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas," from the American Economic Review published in the early 1990s.
"While it is possible for a giver to choose a gift which the recipient ultimately values above its price ... it is more likely that the gift will leave the recipient worse off than if she had made her own consumption choice with an equal amount of cash." It's why gift certificates exist.
18. Some families have had a little more to celebrate, or mourn, on Christmas Day. Notable individuals who were born on Christmas include Pope Pius VI (1717), Humphrey Bogart (1899), Cab Calloway (1907), Anwar Sadat (1918), Sissy Spacek (1949), and Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong, aka Dido (1971). People who died on Christmas include W.C. Fields (1946), Charlie Chaplin (1977), Dean Martin (1995) and James Brown (2006).
19. A letter written by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 replied to little Michelle Rochon's concern about the continuation of Christmas in an increasingly turbulent world.
"I was glad to get your letter about trying to stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole and risking the life of Santa Claus.
"I share your concern about the atmospheric testing of the Soviet Union, not only for the North Pole but for countries throughout the world not only for Santa Claus but for people throughout the world.
"However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds this Christmas."
20. Finally, all silliness aside, it seems fitting to conclude a look at Christmas with words of more authority from the Gospel of Luke:
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
"And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."