30 Interesting Christmas Facts to Impress Your Friends and Family
Mistletoe means something very unromantic in German.
When you’re searching for non-controversial conversation starters for around the dinner table or anytime that one family member wants to start something (we’ve all got ’em), these Christmas facts will come to your rescue. They also make great trivia fodder for a fun holiday game night, even if yours are via video call this year. We all probably already know there’s a lot more to Christmas than finding and then unwrapping gifts (see our gift ideas for 2020!), donning Christmas sweaters and finding Christmas decorations that make the house look like Santa’s workshop. It’s an age-old celebration with centuries of tradition and meaning behind virtually every aspect of the holiday that will have even the holly jolliest of us saying, “Huh! I never knew that!”
From the religious observations you may already look forward to every year to pagan origins and some facts that are just entertaining, we guarantee you’ll learn something from this list. Take a breather from the frenetic pace of the holiday season check this list twice. Maybe you’ll even get inspired to write some of them in your family’s annual Christmas letter or card or give your social media posts some flare.
While Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, there is no mention of December 25 in the Bible. Most historians actually posit that Jesus was born in the spring. And his birthday itself didn’t become the official holiday until the third century. Some historian believe the date was actually chosen because it coincided with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which honored the agricultural god Saturn with celebrating and gift-giving.
The tradition of Christmas trees goes all the way back to ancient Egyptians and Romans, who marked the winter solstice with evergreens as a reminder that spring would return. So if you decorate with a green tree, wreaths or evergreen garland, you’re throwing it back – way back.
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You might want to brew a cup o’ tea when trimming your tree this year to pay homage to its origins. When Prince Albert of Germany introduced a tree to his new wife, Queen Victoria of England, it really took off across the pond. A drawing of the couple in front of a Christmas tree appeared in Illustrated London News in 1848 and as we say, the idea went viral.
You probably already knew that the idea of Santa Claus came from St. Nicholas, but the real saint wasn’t a bearded man who wore a red suit. That all came much later. According to legend, the fourth-century Christian bishop gave away his abundant inheritance to help the needy and rescued women from servitude. His name was Sinter Klaas in Dutch, which later morphed into Santa Claus. The rest of the trappings followed.
Before Coca-Cola got in on it, Santa used to look a lot less jolly — even spooky. It wasn’t until 1931, when the beverage company hired an illustrator named Haddon Sundblom for magazine ads that we got the jolly old elf. Now, kids won’t get nightmares when they dream of Christmas eve.
According to legend, we hang stockings by the chimney with care thanks to a poor man who didn’t have enough money for his three daughters’ dowries. Generous old St. Nick (remember, that’s his trademark!) dropped a bag of gold down their chimney one night, where the girls had hung their stockings to dry. That’s where the gold ended up, and how the tradition began.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first appeared in 1939 when the Montgomery Ward department store asked one of its copywriters to create a Christmas story the store could give away as a promotional gimmick. The store had been giving away coloring books for years, and decided to make its own to save money.
The Christmas wreath originated as a symbol of Christ. The holly represents the crown of thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion, and the red berries symbolize the blood he shed. So when you see a wreath this season, you’ll remember the reason for the season.
Turns out, we were originally dashing through the snow for an entirely different holiday. James Lord Pierpont wrote a song called “One Horse Open Sleigh” for his church’s Thanksgiving concert. Then in 1857, the song was re-published under the title it still holds today, and it eventually became one of the most popular Christmas songs.
This prank almost went too far. Nine days before Christmas in 1965, the two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 sent an odd report to Mission Control that they saw an “unidentified flying object” about to enter Earth’s atmosphere, traveling in the polar orbit from north to south. They interrupted the tense report with the sound of “Jingle Bells,” as Wally Schirra played a small harmonica accompanied by Tom Stafford on a handful of small sleigh bells they had smuggled aboard.
By the time the Puritans settled in Boston, celebrating Christmas had been outlawed. From 1659–1681, anyone caught making merry would face a fine for celebrating. After the Revolutionary War, the day was so unimportant that Congress even held their first session on December 25, 1789. Christmas wasn’t proclaimed a federal holiday for almost another century, proving that the Grinch’s notorious hatred of the holiday was alive and well long before he was.
The Jamestown settlers created the first American batch of eggnog, although it may not have tasted quite the way we know and love today. The word nog comes from the word grog; or any drink made with rum. So technically, an early nog didn’t require the rich, milky base we now ladle out of grandma’s cut-crystal punch bowl.
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If you’ve ever watched Clark Griswold decorate his house in Christmas Vacation, that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 14,700 people visit hospital emergency rooms each November and December from holiday-related decorating accidents. So please, be careful when you’re decking your halls.
Every year, letters to Santa Claus flood post offices across the world, forcing parent to find a way to answer them or explain to the kiddos why their letter got, um, lost in the mail. Cementing their reputation as one of the nicest countries around, some big-hearted Canadian Post Office workers started writing back. As the program took off, they set up a special postal code for Santa as part of a Santa Letter-Writing Program initiative: HOH OHO.
For the love of Christmas, don’t forget to water your tree. Dried-out Christmas trees spark about a hundred fires each year, cause an average of 10 deaths, and result in $15.7 million in property damage, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports. Not only will an errant spark ruin your holiday, it can put both you and responding firefighters in danger.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day last year, the U.S. Postal Service delivered an estimated 910 million packages — in addition to almost 15 billion pieces of mail. That includes gifts for faraway loved ones, cards, letters to Santa and those dreaded credit card bills after we put our holiday purchases on plastic (oops).
Think “Xmas” is a newly nefarious attempt to take Christ out of Christmas? Think again. According to From Adam’s Apple to Xmas: An Essential Vocabulary Guide for the Politically Correct, “Christianity” was spelled “Xianity” as far back as 1100. X, or Chi, in Greek is the first letter of “Christ” and served as a symbolic stand-in. In 1551, the holiday was called “Xtemmas” but eventually shortened to “Xmas.” In reality, Xmas is just as Christian as the longer version.
It may feel like Christmas is everywhere you turn from October right on through New Year’s, and those decorations hit stores earlier every year. That’s partially because most Americans really do jingle bell rock their way right through the season: over 90 percent of us. Not all of those celebrate it as a religious holiday, though.
If church seems a little sparse on Christmas Eve, there may be a reason for that. The Pew Research Center found that fewer people think of Christmas as a religious holiday these days. Only 51% of people who celebrate attend church on Christmas. It didn’t say what percentage of those only go on Christmas and Easter.
According to the National Retail Federation’s 2017 data, consumers spend an average of $967.13 for the holidays, although individual spending can vary widely. In 2018, total retail sales in November and December hit a staggering $717.45 billion.
The holiday flora is an ancient symbol of fertility and virility — and the Druids considered it an aphrodisiac. So keep that in mind next time someone jokes about meeting you under the mistletoe. You might want to know what you’re getting yourself into.
The name itself even has a meaning that might not inspire as many warm fuzzies, however. Mistle thrush birds eat the plant’s berries, digest the seeds, and then the droppings eventually grow into new plants. So, the Germanic word for mistletoe literally means “dung on a twig.” Pucker up!
Some families cook up a turkey for Christmas dinner, others go for ham, and still more go rogue and stick a leg of lamb or another protein in the oven. Google searches for “ham” and “turkey” both spike during the month of December, according to Google Trends data. Despite the popularity of both festive entrees, spiral-cut ham remains the more popular choice for a Christmas table. The jury’s still out on whether people prefer ham or turkey sandwiches the day after, though.
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The National Confectioners Association says a choirmaster originally gave the candies to young children to keep them quiet during long church services. Grandmas who still dole out sweets during droning sermons, you’ve got history on your side. But it wasn’t until a German-Swedish immigrant decorated his tree with candy canes in 1847 that they became popular as a Christmas candy.
The first tree at Rockefeller Center probably looked more like Charlie Brown’s than the resplendent one today. Construction workers at the site first placed a small, undecorated tree while working there in 1931. Two years later, another tree appeared in its place, this time with lights. It grew and grew from there. Nowadays, the giant Rockefeller Center tree bears more than 25,000 twinkling lights and is visited by millions of selfie-takers each season.
You may know Washington Irving best for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and his headless horseman, but he wrote a lot about St. Nicholas, too. In fact, he bestowed eight tiny reindeer on the big man. He loved Santa Claus so much that in 1835, he helped found the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York, serving as its secretary until 1841.
Londoners and visitors probably know the iconic spruce that stretches to the sky in Trafalgar Square each year, but few realize where it comes from. Every year since 1947, the people of Norway have gifted the tree to the people of London. They donate the tree in gratitude for Britain’s support for Norway during World War II. Now that’s what we call goodwill toward men.
During World War II, The United States Playing Card Company joined forces with American and British intelligence agencies to create a very special deck of cards. They gave them out as Christmas gifts that also helped allied prisoners of war escape from German POW camps. Individual cards peeled apart when moistened, to reveal maps of escape routes. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
Unless you cut it yourself, your “fresh” Christmas tree probably spent weeks out of the ground before it made it to your local retailer. And there’s likely no hiking into the woods to get it, either: 98% of American trees today grow on farms, mostly in California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the country’s top Christmas tree-producing states.
Tinsel was invented in 1610 in Germany and was originally spun from real silver, making it far from the chintzy decoration it is now. It also has an edgy history. The U.S. government once banned tinsel because it contained poisonous lead. But never fear; now it’s made of plastic. However, you should still use caution if you have pets or small children, since it’s still harmful if swallowed.