Mirror Magazine


Seasonal trivia
By Leyla Swan
Did you know that the city of Savannah was a Christmas gift to President Abraham Lincoln, or that the Twelve Days of Christmas is actually a counting song? Here are some facts you didn't know about the season.

Ho! Ho! Ho!
Father Christmas himself seems to be a hybrid of several myths and legends. For instance, there is a strong relationship between Father Christmas and the white-bearded Scandinavian god Odin, who wore a hooded cloak and rode through the sky distributing gifts or punishment to Viking children.

In Germany, a more benevolent goddess named Hertha descended from the skies with her invisible, non-material gifts of good health and family fortune.

Such legendary figures seemed to have merged with that of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century boy who was born in Asia Minor and became the bishop of Myra in Turkey. Famously kind to animals and children, he was later persecuted and imprisoned for his Christian faith. According to one account of his life, on one occasion he provided a poor peasant with the dowry he needed for the weddings of his three daughters. Nicholas apparently gifted the first daughter with a bag of silver, the second with a bag of incense, and the third daughter with a bag of gold, which he tossed down the chimney top in the early hours of a winter night.

In old Czechoslovakia, children believed that Svaty Mikulas descended from heaven on a golden cord supported by a benevolent angel. Upon awakening on Christmas morning, Czech children would immediately gather at the breakfast table to recite their prayers of gratitude, and ask if they had behaved well that year. If they had, Svaty Mikulas rewarded them with a gift.

The day
Christmas Day probably bears little relation to the actual date of the birth of Jesus. It is more likely that some time in the fourth century, Pope Julius chose 25 December because it fell near several well-established pagan festivals, including the celebration of the winter solstice.

In some parts of southwestern England, apple growers once marked the solstice with shotguns, lanterns, bread and cider. At dusk they fired the guns into the trees to encourage good spirits to overcome bad ones and to ensure a good harvest. The bread and cider were thrust into the branches to feed the good spirits.

In Ancient Rome, December was the month in which Saturnalia was celebrated. This was a week-long festival in honour of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. Trees were adorned with trinkets and decorations to pay tribute to the sun god Solarus, expressing hope that the long days of winter would eventually give way to spring.

For the Ancient Egyptians, too, late December was a festive time. They honoured Isis, the goddess of the harvest, by bringing palm branches into their homes as a symbol of the eternal cycles of life and society.

...And some more
Many historians believe that the famous song The Twelve Days of Christmas, with its parade of lords-a-leaping and partridges in pear trees, is actually an educational rhyme designed to teach children their numbers and that it has no seasonal symbolism at all.

The English custom of burning a yule log at Christmas is actually a tradition introduced by the country's Norse and Viking invaders, who believed that the sun was a spinning wheel of fire known as the "hweol" that retreated from the Earth during the winter. During the darkest days of the winter solstice, the Norsemen kept a "hweol" log burning all day and all night. When spring finally arrived, a piece of the log was reserved to light the new log of the next winter. Thus the rekindled log symbolised the continuance of life for at least another year. Indeed, the word "yuletide" derives from the Old Norse name "Hweolor-tid", meaning the "turning time of the sun".

In England, there was once a belief that a child born on Christmas Day would never be drowned or hanged. It is apparently still thought unlucky to refuse the offer of a mince pie, while eating a pie every day for the 12 days of Christmas is said to guarantee 12 happy months ahead.

In 1830, John Popple of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England, left 40 pounds in his will to provide ale, tobacco and snuff for workhouse residents on Christmas Day.

Few Christmas presents are as unusual or as large as the one President Abraham Lincoln received in 1864, when General William Sherman captured the Georgian city of Savannah during the American Civil War and sent Lincoln a telegram reading: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."

Greek Christians eat Christpsomo (Christ's bread) when they return home from mass at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning. The Christmas tree and presents do not appear until St Basil's Day on January 1.

In Berlin in 1991, a local "Hire a Santa" service received 5,000 bookings to deliver gifts to homes.

The nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner sticking his thumb in a Christmas pie and pulling out a plum is said to derive from the rule of King Henry VIII. At a time when Henry was seizing and sacking England's monasteries, the Abbot of Glastonbury apparently sent his steward Jack Horner to London to present Henry VIII with a pie containing the deeds to 12 manors inside. During the journey, Horner opened the pie and removed the deed to Mells in Somerset, which was indeed acquired by the Horner family at that time, although they claim that it was purchased legitimately.

From 1659 until 1768, the Puritan founding fathers of the American city of Boston banned all Christmas celebrations. Emulating Oliver Cromwell, the pilgrims believed that such frivolity was decadent and detracted from the serious business of contemplating religion. Hence, the Bostonians imposed a fine of five shillings on anyone who showed Christmas spirit!

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was the creation of Robert May, who wrote the famous book about the eponymous deer in 1939. Apparently, Rudolph was not May's first choice - he considered the names Reginald and Rollo before settling for Rudolph.

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