Tis the season to be...well informed. We all love Christmas, but how much do any of us actually know about why Christmas is the way Christmas is?
Amid the pandemic that keeps on taking, as many of us are forced to adjust to a not-so-festive-feeling holiday season, it’s more important to find new ways to make merry. Thus, here are 35 (fun) facts about Santa Claus, Rudolph and the undisputed queen of Christmas, Mariah Carey, that you (probably) didn’t know. Curl up by the fire with a nice cup of hot cocoa and smarten up!
1. Christmas supposedly marks the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25. But there is no mention of Dec. 25 in the Bible and most historians actually believe he was born in the spring.
2. Dec. 25 was likely chosen because it coincided with the ancient pagan festival Saturnalia, which celebrated the agricultural god Saturn with partying, gambling and gift-giving.
3. Many of the popular Christmas traditions today found their roots in Saturnalia: Branches from evergreen trees were used during winter solstice as a reminder of the green plants that would grow in spring when the sun gods grew strong.
4. These evergreen branches became the foundation of our Christmas tree. Germans are thought to be the first to bring “Christmas trees” into their homes during the holidays and decorate them with cookies and lights.
5. The Christmas tree made its way to America in the 1830s but wasn’t popular until 1846, after Germany’s Prince Albert brought it to England when he married Queen Victoria. The two were sketched in front of a Christmas tree and the tradition instantly became popular. Royal fever was real even back then.
6. The well-known reason we give presents at Christmas is to symbolize the gifts given to baby Jesus by the three wise men. But it may also stem from the Saturnalia tradition that required revelers to offer up rituals to the gods.
7. Because of its roots in pagan festivals, Christmas was not immediately accepted by the religious. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston, of all places. You were fined if you were caught celebrating.
8. Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop living in (what is now) Turkey in the fourth century A.D. St. Nicholas had inherited a great deal of wealth and was known for giving it away to help the needy. When sainted, he became the protector of children.
9. After his death, the legend of St. Nicholas spread. St. Nick’s name became Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch, or Sinter Klaas for short. Which is only a hop, skip and a jump to Santa Claus.
10. Santa Claus delivering presents comes from Holland’s celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day on Dec. 6. Children would leave shoes out the night before and, in the morning, would find little gifts that St. Nicholas would leave them.
11. One of the reasons we leave milk and cookies for Santa is because Dutch kids would leave food and drink for St. Nicholas on his feast day.
12. And we leave carrots for Santa Claus’ reindeer because, in Norse mythology, people left hay and treats for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, “in hopes the god would stop by their home during his Yule hunting adventures.” Dutch children adopted this tradition too and would leave treats for St. Nick’s horse.
13. And stockings come from this story: A poor man with three daughters couldn’t afford the dowry to have them married. One night, St. Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney so that his oldest daughter would be able to get married, and the bag fell into a stocking that was drying by the fire.
14. The look of Santa Claus we have today was created at an 1804 meeting of the New York Historical Society, where member John Pintard handed out wooden cutouts of jolly old St. Nick in front of stockings filled with toys.
15. Though Santa Claus has worn blue and white and green in the past, his traditional red suit came from a 1930s ad by Coca Cola.
16. And the image of him flying in a sleigh started in 1819…and was dreamt up by the same author who created the Headless Horseman, Washington Irving.
17. Not all Christmas characters are as…benevolent. There’s also Krampus, made infamous by the 2015 horror movie of the same name, a horned, hooved demon who punishes naughty children by beating them or dragging them to Hell, according to Austrian folklore.
18. Belsnickel — of German and Pennsylvania Dutch folklore — is likely a combination of the two, a fur-clad menace who brings candy to good children…and beats bad kids with his switch. (You may recognize Belsnickel from the time Dwight dressed as him on The Office.)
19. Rudolph was actually conceived by a department store, Montgomery Ward, as a marketing gimmick to get kids to buy holiday coloring books.
29. Rudolph almost didn’t have a red nose either: At the time, a red nose was a sign of chronic alcoholism and Montgomery Ward thought he would look like a drunkard.
21. Rudolph was almost named Rollo or Reginald. Reginald the Red-Nosed Reindeer doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
22. The poem that introduced us to the other eight reindeer, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” actually name-dropped Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Duner and Blixem. (Which, like Donner and Blitzen, come from the German words for thunder and lightning.)
23. Over the years, other reindeer have been name-checked on Santa’s sleigh team, such as: Flossie, Glossie, Racer, Pacer, Scratcher, Feckless, Ready, Steady and Fireball (no relation to the whiskey).
24. The first batch of eggnog in America was crafted at Captain John Smith’s Jamestown settlement in 1607, and the name eggnog comes from the word “grog,” which refers to any drink made with rum.
25. How’s this for romantic? Mistletoe — that special sprig we all swap smooches under — is actually a parasite, sucking nutrients from its host tree in order to stay festively green all winter long. If enough mistletoe attaches to a tree, it will eventually kill it.
26. Oh, and the word mistletoe itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “misteltan,” with “mistel” — which means dung — and “tan,” which means twig, on account of its habit of sprouting near bird poop. Cute!
27. “Silent Night” is the most-recorded Christmas song in history, with over 733 different versions copyrighted since 1978.
28. Legend has it that “Silent Night” was written by Father Joseph Mohr in Austria, who was determined to have music at his Christmas service after his organ broke. In reality, a priest wrote it while stationed at a pilgrim church in Austria.
29. Meanwhile, “White Christmas” is the best-selling song of all time.
30. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” actually has a truly depressing backstory: songwriter James “Haven” Gillespie was broke, jobless and his brother had just died when he was asked to write a Christmas song. He was originally too overcome with grief, but eventually found inspiration in his brother’s death and the Christmas memories they had together.
31. The original lyrics to “Hark! The Herald Angel Sing” were “Hark! How the Welkin rings!” Welkin is an old, English term for Heaven. A preacher later tweaked the lyric.
32. “Jingle Bells” was originally supposed to be a Thanksgiving song.
33. Boston church leaders tried to have the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” banned in the 1950s because they thought it “promoted physical intimacy.” Singer Jimmy Boyd had to fly to Boston and explain to them why it wasn’t obscene.
34. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” holds the Guinness World Records title for the highest-charting holiday song. In the music video, Santa is played by Mariah’s then-husband, Tommy Mottola.
35. And the highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time is How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Jim Carrey version, of course.
Now you know. Or at least have a bunch of random facts to rattle off to your family when you run out of things to talk about. Merry (almost) Christmas!
[This story was originally published December 7, 2017.]
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