Brush up on Christmas trivia

You probably know a lot about Christmas already – the legends of Saint Nicholas, the Bible story, and any other number of festive myths have been told and retold through the ages. However, there are some other Christmassy facts that don’t often see the light of day. Here are a few of the more interesting ones. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn’t actually mention a specific date for Jesus’ birth. In fact, most historians believe he was probably born in the spring, hence the Bible’s description of shepherds herding animals. But in the 4th century, when the Catholic Church decided to recognize Jesus’ birth as an official holiday, Pope Julius I chose December 25 for the Feast of the Nativity. That the date happened to coincide with the pagan festival known as Saturnalia must have been pure coincidence.

Five months into the First World War, troops along the Western front took a Christmas Eve break from fighting to sing carols to one another across the battlefield. The following morning, German soldiers emerged from the trenches and began to approach Allied troops while calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Luckily, it wasn’t a trick; dozens of British fighters came out to greet them and shake hands, some even exchanging cigarettes as gifts. Later dubbed the Christmas Truce of 1914, it was one of the last examples of wartime chivalry.

From 1659 to 1681, showcasing one’s holiday spirit in Boston could cost you a fine of as much as five shillings. That’s right — Christmas used to be illegal. It’s somewhat surprising, then, that the same puritanical minds also created the first American batch of eggnog at Captain John Smith’s 1607 Jamestown settlement. (The word nog comes from the word grog; that is, any drink made with rum.) Christmas was so inconsequential in early America that after the Revolutionary War, Congress didn’t even bother taking the day off to celebrate the holiday, deciding instead to hold its first session on Christmas Day, 1789. It took almost a century for Congress to proclaim it a federal holiday.

The author best known for creating the Headless Horseman also created the iconic image of Santa flying in a sleigh. In his 1819 series of short stories The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, New York native Washington Irving described a dream in which St. Nicholas soared across the sky in a weightless wagon. The stories became so popular, they spawned a Christmas revival of sorts in the States, and even Charles Dickens is said to have credited Irving’s work for inspiring his classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol.

According to Celtic and Teutonic legend, mistletoe is magical — it can heal wounds, increase fertility, bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe didn’t begin until the Victorian era, a surprising origin given the stuffy and sexually repressive behavior of the time. Actually, it’s not very surprising at all.

Even before the arrival of Christianity, Germans decorated evergreen trees to brighten the dark, gloomy days of the winter solstice. The first “Christmas trees” appeared in Strasbourg in the 17th century and spread to Pennsylvania in the 1820s with the arrival of German immigrants. When Queen Victoria married Germany’s Prince Albert in 1840, he brought the tradition to England. Eight years later, the first American newspaper ran a picture of the royal Christmas tree, and Americans outside Pennsylvania quickly followed suit.

Since the Great Depression, the Rockettes have shared Radio City Music Hall with live farm animals — from camels to donkeys to sheep — to stage a live nativity scene for its annual “Christmas Spectacular.” But the world saw its first living nativity in 1224, when St. Francis of Assisi re-created the birth of Jesus to explain the holiday to his followers. During that first display, the manger was also used as an altar for Christmas Mass.

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