Christmas 101: Xmas Day unravelled and all the traditions explained

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Whether you're a believer or not, we've found 10 festive facts you never knew about Christmas Day...

Christmas might be everywhere right now – from the meet-and-greet Santas in the shopping malls to the sparkling lights illuminating the island – but as a melting-pot nation of so many different cultures, religions and beliefs, we get that Xmas isn’t on everyone’s celebration radar. But as far as we’re concerned, you don’t have to believe to join the fun, so settle down with a mince pie and mulled wine (more on that later) and check out our Christmas unravelled: 10 things you never knew about Xmas…

What’s it all about?
In a nutshell, Christmas is celebrated by Christians around the globe to honour the birth of Jesus Christ, who is believed by many to be the Son of God. Maternity packages and whatnot were not quite up to the same standard as those we are blessed with today, and poor Jesus’ mum, Mary, was blue lighted not in an ambulance to a birthing centre, but on a donkey to Bethlehem where she gave birth in a stable. Still, it was made lovely and festive with the help of a very bright star, a whole choral of angels and some pretty snazzy gifts from strangers arriving from the East on camels.

Slightly awkward: it is widely believed that Jesus was actually born in the spring, NOT on 25 December, but no matter. Given that he arrived via a virgin and created a religion followed by billions for over 2000 years, we’re sure he won’t mind that we’re all a little early (or is it late?) with our yearly celebrations.

Things you never knew about Christmas
1. We’ve already established that 25 December may be a bit of a clerical error, but in actual fact Pope Julius I chose this date as the original Feast of the Nativity, probably in an attempt to Christianize the popular pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was a big nod to the Sun God and to the winter solstice. Ironically, Saturnalia was associated with partying and gift-giving!  

2. Santa Claus, or St Nicholas as he was known back in the day, didn’t originally come from the North Pole at all: he was in fact a Christian bishop living in Turkey back in 4AD. He became sainted as a protector of children and was known for giving away his great fortune to the needy. After his death the stories of St. Nick travelled far and wide. He became known as Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch, and Sinter Klaas for short. You can see where this is going.

3. Santa wasn’t always the jolly man in the red suit: he was often featured in blue, white or green traditionally. Coca-Cola came up with the red get-up in a 1930s advert, and thus red became The Real Thing.

4. And Santa flying in a sleigh? That came from the author of The Headless Horseman, Washington Irving, in 1819 as a satire to help promote a book he was releasing at the time. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

5. Obviously there can be no sleigh without Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and his mates. Not Coca-Cola or horror writers this time: a department store, Montgomery Ward, created him as a marketing gimmick to persuade parents to buy colouring books for the holiday season! He was almost named Rollo or Reginald, and the red nose was a bone of contention for a while as some thought it would make him look drunk! Cue song: Reginald the Red-Nosed Reindeer… Nope. It doesn’t quite work.

6. If you celebrate Christmas then no doubt you will have already ordered either a lovely live fir or a fabulous fake Xmas tree. But why do we stick felled trees in our house and then throw a load of decorations at them? The evergreen fir was traditionally used in winter festivals for both pagan and Christian festivities for thousands of years as a symbol of everlasting life (with God if you are a Christian). The earliest recorded trees were used in Northern Europe, and were hung upside down from the ceilings! That’s toddler-proofing at its best. It was the Germans, in around the 15th century, who started decorating trees with edible goodies and small glass ornaments similar to the baubles and candy cane traditions we use today.

7. Yes they are a bit of an acquired taste (we LOVE them) but the original mince pies as Xmas fare were actually pies filled with rabbit, pigeon, pheasant and hare, alongside dried fruit and spices. The meat got ditched along the way, but according to tradition we should all be making a wish on the first mince pie of the festive season. You then need a pie on each of the 12 days of Xmas to ensure fabulous luck for the next 12 months. Bring on the pies!

8. Not only did the Germans give us Xmas trees, amazing festive markets and pretty good sausages, they also invented tinsel! Kids LOVE the stuff, and although we can throw tons of it at the tree without too much damage to the wallet, when it was first used in the 15th century, it was literally made from shredded silver! The word tinsel comes from the Old French ‘estincele’, meaning sparkle and was most definitely a luxe festive item only the few could afford before the likes of Daiso was invented. 

9. We have Henry VIII to thank for a turkey and all the trimmings Xmas dinner. When he wasn’t busy divorcing and beheading wives, he was generally feasting, and it was he who became the first recorded person to have a traditional turkey dinner on Xmas Day. In the UK alone around 10 million turkeys are served up on 25 December… That’s a whole lot of drumsticks. 

10. We all love snuggling up with the kids during the festive season to catch a Christmas blockbuster, but any guesses on the top three grossing Christmas films of all time? Drum roll please… In third place we have the visually amazing 2004 Tom Hanks movie, The Polar Express. Steaming into a grouchy second place, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and in first place: Home Alone! An oldie but absolutely still one of the best.

Happy Xmas, everyone!

Like this story? Here’s more festive fun we think you’ll enjoy:
The Pre-Xmas blockbusters we want to catch at the cinema
Where to find the best festive feasts for Christmas Day with the kids
Things to do with your small elves during the Christmas holidays
Turkey, ham and all the trimmings: order in for Xmas Day
How to ace travelling overseas at Christmas with the kids in tow