9 Things You Might Not Know about Christmas

OK, something rather less weighty or theologically-oriented this year. This Christmas post has little to do with the biblical Nativity and more to do with Christmas traditions in general. (Maybe I should do another one someday with just Christian-oriented things?) But, I think you may find it fun and informative, anyway. It’s a sort of collection of “fun facts” about Christmas that I decided to arrange around the word “CHRISTMAS” as an acronym. You may notice that, even though I had two ‘S’s to work with, I chose not to write about Santa or the Star (of Bethlehem). This is because, at some future date, I plan to write full posts on each one. (Note: I wanted to do “Holly” for the “H”. But, I was really  hard-pressed to find something for “I”, so when I went with “Ivy”, I decided not to do another plant. The Christmas Tree, of course, is a special case.)

Without further ado,…

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Cards

The giving of Christmas cards seems almost as integral to the season as the exchanging of gifts. But, where and when did this custom come from?

First Christmas cardIn Britain in 1840, the penny post was introduced. One of those responsible, civil servant and inventor Henry Cole, tried to promote its use and also encourage a reduction in the size of the typical Christmas letter sent to family & friends by introducing the first Christmas card in 1843. The cost of the cards themselves were a schilling apiece — roughly a day’s wages for a laborer — so only the well-to-do could really afford them. The invention of cheap color lithography, however, brought the price waaaaaaaaay down, so Christmas cards were popular with the masses by the 1860s.

The first Christmas card was designed by Victorian “narrative style” artist John Horsley. As you can see above, the side panels depicted popular images of acts of charity, surrounded by leafy trelliswork. But, the central picture was of a large family enjoying Christmas dinner. Cole thought of the Christmas card as the “folk art of the Industrial Revolution”, and it was the vehicle by which much of the now-standard Christmas iconography became popularized. Designs ranged from the strange (e.g., mannequins and odd characters with pudding-heads) to the conventional (e.g., fireside scenes, holly & mistletoe). The cards were printed on paper, but they were often adorned with silk or satin, frosted or gilded — even made to squeak. A few were even shaped in the form of stars, crescents, and fans. Eventually, ol’ St. Nick became a popular figure on the cards and could be seen “demonstrating” commercial products, from the newly-invented telephone to Coca-Cola. (I wonder if he got a commission for those “product placements”….) Being an inventor and appreciator of technology, I’ll bet Cole would be amazed by today’s e-cards.

Hot chocolate/cocoa

Does anyone really need a reason for drinking hot chocolate? It warms you up (especially helpful after neighborhood caroling, snowball fights, and building snowmen), tastes great, and smells wonderful!

You may have heard of scientific studies reporting on the health benefits of chocolate. What you may not know is that chocolate consumption was originally as a beverage. In fact, a 17th-century physician from Peru recognized and wrote that drinking hot chocolate is “good for soldiers who are on guard.” Why? Chocolate contains two caffeine-like substances — methylxanthine and theobromine — that make it a stimulant. However, all good things in moderation, right? As you may have discovered in your overindulgent youth, stimulants (inc. chocolate) taken in large doses can cause nausea and vomiting. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, related to amphetamine, which produces a feeling of well-being and alertness. Unfortunately, it also contributes to a tendency to overconsume, and too much phenylethylamine can cause a migraine headache.

I mentioned the aroma of hot chocolate above. British psychologist Neil Martin conducted experiments a few years ago on people’s reactions to different food smells. Chocolate was the only one to significantly effect the subjects’ brain activity — specifically, by reducing theta wave activity, which is associated with attentiveness. The effect was to relax the sniffer and make him/her inattentive. On the other hand, Martin’s colleague, Alison Gould, conducted her own experiments, which determined that pleasant and/or “alerting” smells help people perform complex tasks better. (I don’t know if chocolate was one of the smells Gould tested, but peppermint was.) All of this is “part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that the rich smells of Christmas may affect us more than we realize.” The sensory receptors of the olfactory nerves pass directly over the olfactory “bulb” in the brain, which is close to the brain center responsible for emotions and cognitive behavior. So, it’s shouldn’t be surprising that smell is closely linked with emotions. It’s no wonder people include hot chocolate in their Christmas traditions!

Reindeer

An integral part of the Santa Claus myth is his employment of reindeer to pull his sleigh around the globe, as the jolly old elf disperses gifts to “nice” children. While it’s true that antlers have been on display at Christmas dances for centuries (at least since Renaissance times), the original St. Nicholas most likely came from Turkey and probably never traveled anywhere near any reindeer. (In fact, he may not have even been aware of them.) The old tales don’t involve reindeer. For example, the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas rides a gray horse and wears bishop’s robes. The association of Santa with reindeer seems to have originated with Professor Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1822), commonly known by its opening phrase, “‘Twas the night before Christmas”. It is thought that Moore synthesized pieces from different European folklore and may have gotten this particular idea from the Finnish legend of “Old Man Winter”, who is said to drive reindeer down the mountains with him, carrying snow.

a reindeer harnessed for the sleighThe more one looks into it, the more one realizes that Moore (and those that followed in their Christmas depictions) hadn’t a clue about reindeer. Reindeer are the only deer species for which both sexes have antlers. They are essential for males, who use them during ritual combat and fighting during the breeding season. By the end of this season, the males are exhausted, having used up fat reserves and lost a lot of body weight from all the fighting and, er, breeding. Soon, hormonal changes cause their antlers to fall off, and it takes up to four months for a new set to grow in. So, in reality, the only adult reindeer with the antlers and energy to pull Santa’s overburdened sleigh come Christmas are the females. The Lapp peoples who use reindeer as beasts of burden mostly use castrated males, since they have discovered that this causes an abnormal antler cycle, and the males keep their “headgear” longer. (Poor Rudolph and the boys!) They don’t do well in particularly hard or deep snow, or if there’s a refrozen crust of ice that they can’t dig through — though the fine, powdery stuff is good. (Better watch it on those roofs!) Also, because their double-layered fur is such a good insulator, it is doubtful that Santa’s team would be comfortable lounging around chimneys or at fireside with the boss.

Incidentally, reindeer are the most important land-based animal for people native to the Arctic. The meat is tasty, tender, and lean. The fur (as mentioned) is a great insulator for clothes & blankets, and the antlers and bones are useful for fashioning tools, weapons, and ornaments. Then, of course, there is the aforementioned uses for labor and transportation.

Ivy

Ivy, like other evergreens, stays fresh-looking through the winter months. This is why, even before Roman times, pagans thought of it as magical, linking it to winter spirits and vitality and using it for decorations and presents. Early Christians refused to use ivy, since its ability to thrive in the shade was associated with things like carousing, secrecy, and general debauchery. They eventually got past these reservations, incorporating ivy into their Christmas traditions and investing it with new meaning. Some thought the sharp leaves were reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries represented His shed blood. (Sounds more like Easter symbolism than Christmas.) The fact that ivy must cling to something for support as it grows/climbs is supposed to remind Christians we must cling to God for support in our lives. The evergreen-ness supposedly symbolizes eternal life and resurrection. Its appearance on dead trees inspired Medieval Christians to consider the immortal soul which lived even though the body (represented by the dead tree) decayed. Germans traditionally only kept ivy outside, and a piece on a church building was (is?) believed to protect it from lightning. (Superstitious baloney, if’n ya ask me.) Personally, I think it just makes for some nice decoration.

The many species of climbing or ground-creeping ivy plant are found all over the world. Popular for its adaptability for design, it is used where only narrow spaces are available, or for ornamentation, or to cover over ugly surfaces (e.g., walls, fences, stumps). The presence of ivy on other plants & trees can be a threat, particularly in North America, where there are no natural enemies. Aggressive ivy growth can compete for resources, weigh down a host plant, and weaken its resistance to insects and disease. Some ivy species have become quite invasive, interfering with local habitats. It can cause structural problems over time for stacked stone and brick/stone & mortar. Stucco-plastered walls can also be ruined during pruning or removal of ivy.

In their native habitats, ivy is quite important for a range of insects and birds, providing nectar, fruit, and leaves, when other sources are scarce. For humans, though, ivy leaves contain chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction in some people upon contact. The bright red (when ripe) berries, though pretty, are toxic; but, they have a bitter taste, so few have ever eaten enough to be badly poisoned.

Stockings

The Christmas stocking is a familiar sight during the holidays in many places and through many media. The tradition originated with the best-known of St. Nicholas’ alleged miracles. Here it is, as related by Dr. Roger Highfield:

Santa filling stockings“The miracle concerned a noble and his three daughters, who had fallen on hard times. The daughters had little chance of marriage, as their father could not pay their dowries, so they faced a life of prostitution. One night St. Nicholas, hearing of the girls’ plight, threw a sack of gold through a window of the nobleman’s shabby castle. The sack contained enough gold to provide for one daughter’s marriage. The next night he tossed another sack of gold through the window for the second daughter. But on the third night the window was closed. Ever resourceful, St. Nicholas dropped the third sack of gold down the chimney. Townsfolk heard the story and began hanging stockings by the fireplace at night to collect any gold that might come their way, presumably — hence the tradition of the Christmas stocking and Santa’s affinity for fireplaces.”

The tradition has certainly been maintained and encouraged in Europe and North America, with images found in many seasonal paintings (inc. on Christmas cards), books/poems (e.g., “A Visit from St. Nicholas”), TV shows and movies, etc. And who doesn’t love discovering the goodies Santa left in their stocking on Christmas morning, or watching the (grand)kids dig into theirs? All part of making Christmas memories….

Tree

“O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!”

This is the opening (and recurring) line of a traditional German carol, a favorite of many. Its lyrics celebrate the tree’s evergreen beauty, the festive cheeriness of its ornaments, and the pleasure and joy it brings others as a symbol of the season. But, you may ask, how did we get in the habit of decorating firs, spruces, pines, cedars, & Leyland cypress with various sorts of bright and colorful accessories, often after chopping them down and bringing them indoors?

The roots (heh!) of the tradition go waaaaay back. People have always been fascinated by evergreens’ seeming defiance of winter. As mentioned above and below, ancient pagans (especially in Germany’s Black Forest) included evergreens in their winter rituals and festivals — as do many present-day pagans, I’d wager. Tree-dressing rituals can be traced back to Scandinavia, Russia, and India. But, what about the Christian Christmas tradition, specifically?

There is a legend that Martin Luther (16th Cent.) was once so moved by the myriad of bright stars on a clear winter night that he placed a bunch of candles in a tree to simulate the effect. There is documentation of decorated trees in homes in Strassbourg in 1605. But, it wasn’t until 1796 that we have the first known illustration showing a candlelit Christmas tree at Wandsbek Castle, near Hamburg. By 1804 we know the tree had made it to America, since witness accounts tell of soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) chopping down trees from nearby woods and taking them into their barracks at Christmas. Prof. Charles Minnegrode, a German immigrant, introduced tree-decorating to the people of Williamsburg, VA, in 1842. Nine years later, Mark Carr opened the first retail Christmas tree lot — in Manhattan, at the old Washington Market (now TriBeCa) — and the trees were a hit! By the end of the century, they were so much ingrained in American tradition that a description of Christmas at the White House included “an old-fashioned Christmas tree.”

Meanwhile in Britain, due to the German background of the Hanoverian monarchs, a few had become aware of and taken up the custom of decorating Christmas trees as early as the mid-18th century. But, it didn’t really catch on until 1840, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set up their first tree in Windsor Castle. Eight years later, the iconic image of the royal family beside their tree appeared in the Illustrated London News.

Quick quiz: In the U.S., there are — or *were*, until a few weeks ago — around one million acres of soon-to-be Christmas trees. Each acre of Christmas trees yields the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. You do the math….

Mistletoe

hanging clump of mistletoe with red ribbonLike holly and ivy, mistletoe is another evergreen used by pagans and adopted by Christians as a Christmas decoration, though it wasn’t really popular until at least the 18th century. (Note: A different species is harvested for this in North America than in Europe.) Druids thought the plant was sacred, especially those rare occasions when it was found growing on their most-revered oaks. Kissing under mistletoe also comes from pagan tradition, which associated the plant with fertility & vitality. According to Wikipedia, “The custom may be of Scandinavian origin. It was alluded to as common practice in 1808 and described in 1820 by American author Washington Irving in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Mistletoe is not exactly a “friendly” plant. In point of fact, mistletoe is semi-parasitic, using a structure called the “haustorium” to penetrate and feed from the tree or shrub it has attached itself to. By sucking water and nutrients away, the mistletoe inhibits the host plant’s growth, and heavy infestation can kill the host. If you notice berries on a mistletoe sprig or bush, maybe even see birds eating them, stay away! They’re probably poisonous! (Not sure about the rest of the plant, but I wouldn’t risk it.) Unless, of course, you enjoy diarrhea and acute gastrointestinal distress.

But, it’s not all bad. In fact, mistletoe is now classified as an “ecological keystone species”, due to its integral role in local ecologies. A wide array of animals depend on various parts of the plant (leaves, young shoots, berries, etc.) for food. Some types of mistletoe are also prime locations for roosting and nesting of many birds (e.g., northern spotted owl in North America), including over 200 species in Australia alone. Finally, mistletoe has long been thought to have medicinal properties, and recent studies have determined that extracts from some kinds of mistletoe are an effective aid against some forms of cancer.

Alcohol

Not everyone drinks alcohol during the Christmas season, of course. (I don’t.) But, a whooooole lot of people do, and different nations and people-groups have different traditional drinks. For example, Christmas specialties in Britain have included (strong) church ale and a basin of “lamb’s wool”, i.e., hot, mulled beer with apples floating on top for bobbing. Whether they prefer beer, wine, mead, ale, or something else, those who partake usually drink more than usual during the holidays, which is common during festive celebrations. Recent statistics reveal that alcohol consumption in Britain goes up about 40% for the month of December. I suspect there’s more than “church ale” and “lamb’s wool” being drunk, though. (Plus, that probably involves New Year’s Eve parties, too.) Unfortunately, it should also be no surprise that alcohol-related traffic fatalities increase around Christmas and New Year’s, too.

You’ve probably heard/read about the various benefits (when consumed in moderation) and downsides (when consumed in excess) of alcholic consumption and possibly experienced a few of them yourself. I won’t get into all of the biochemical this-n-that which happens when the human body ingests alcoholic beverages. But, suffice to say, there are various reasons why some people can “hold their liquor” better than others. Even if (you think) you can drink a lot without being impaired, you’re wrong. If you’re human, it affects you. So, I’ll just encourage everyone to know your limitations and drink responsibly. (End of PSA.)

Snow

Everybody loves a white Christmas, and that means snow — a gorgeous, snowy landscape or a snow-covered hillside with sledding children or maybe freshly-fallen snow blanketing the city. And, of course, there’s Santa’s workshop at the snowy North Pole. Snow can be a bane or blessing, but anyone who has played in it as a child (or with children) has fond memories. Even in warmer climates, people use fake snow of various sorts, even spray-on “snow” on store windows, to simulate the effect and help get in the Christmas spirit. So, I was wondering how snow forms and why the flakes look like they do….

snowy landscape in Ukraine with trees and mountainsI’ll spare you the full climatology lesson, but here’s a short version. Clouds form when warm, moist air rises and is cooled (e.g., over a mountain) or a wedge of cold air slips under a mass of warm air. Very clean air (i.e., usually at higher altitudes) can get supersaturated with moisture before droplets form, but at lower levels the water molecules need to attach themselves around a tiny (solid or liquid) particle of foreign material referred to as a cloud condensation nucleus (CCN). Even when the temperature of the cloud’s interior is below freezing, the water droplets suspended within stay liquid. This equilibrium remains until the cloud cools way down to at least -40° Celsius, when the droplets freeze into “diamond dust” crystals. However, crystals can form at higher temps if they have bits of soil, dust, volcanic ash, even bacteria, to form around. These are referred to as ice-forming nuclei or “snow seeds”. In fact, there are relatively few natural ice nuclei drifting around, but scientists have discovered they can encourage snowfall by “seeding” clouds with silver iodide crystals.

Under atmospheric pressure and at temperatures below freezing, water molecules link together in larger networks whose fundamental building blocks are “puckered”, symmetrical, six-membered rings. Snowflakes retain this symmetry. But, atmospheric snow crystals actually go through several stages, beginning as flat, hexagonal plates. As temperatures drop, they morph into “stellars”, hollow columns, needles, spatial dendrites (i.e., branched), capped columns, and finally irregular crystals. As crystals fall through the cloud, they clump together. This process, called “aggregation”, occurs when slightly thawed crystals collide and freeze together, forming the familiar, largely-symmetrical-but-not-perfect, six-sided star pattern snowflakes.

I’ll let Dr. Roger Highfield explain the diversity of snowflakes:

 “The snowflakes that float down from the sky are all different because of the way the tiny proto-flakes and their descendants attract new water molecules to their corners. As the crystals fall toward Earth through air of different temperatures and humidities, buffeted by winds, they grow in their own unique ways as water molecules attach to them.

No two snowflakes are alike, because their shape arises from the interplay between the random arrival of water molecules and their preference for assembling in a hexagonal fashion. The crystals devour water vapor in the cloud, growing rapidly until they are large enough to fall as snowflakes, the so-called Bergeron Findeson process.”

Yes, that was the “short version”.

That’s it! OK, so there were a lot more than “9 things”. But, I hope you found these “fun facts” historically and scientifically informative, with a couple notes of caution for health & safety thrown in. 🙂 Peace and blessings to you as you spend time together celebrating and (hopefully) rejoicing in our Savior’s birth!

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

P.S. For more Christmas- and other holiday-oriented posts, visit the “Holiday Posts” page.

P.P.S. Much of the material adapted for this article comes from The Physics of Christmas by Dr. Roger Highfield.

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