Mrs C: Not that kind of trifle, silly elf. The word has several meanings. The English dictionary explains that trifle can be “an insignificant amount of something” or “something of little value or importance” – as well as a delicious dessert. Trivia equals trifles.
Ed Elf: Now I’m really confused…like a mouse pushing a bauble.
Mrs C: While he gets his head in gear, we can look through our collection of Christmas trivia – the little dollops of trifle we have dotted throughout our calendar and other areas of How to Christmas but which we felt could be pleasingly pulled together in an easy-to-scan page. Enjoy!
Ed Elf: So I could actually eat a sherry trivia? Who knew?
Food for Thought
Brussels sprouts get their trademark bitter taste from a chemical defence, evolved to ward off insects. During cooking, sprouts release sulphur compounds that react with bacteria in the gut to produce hydrogen sulphide, which is found in stink bombs.
Christmas pudding should contain 13 ingredients to honour Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples.
The phrase “to eat humble pie” comes from a 17th Century Christmas or mince pie eaten by the lower classes, made of deer innards and other offal and sometimes mixed with fruit and spices. It was known as ‘Umble Pie’. ‘Umble’ came from ‘numble’, after the French ‘nomble’ meaning deer innards.
When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned Christmas in England in 1647, it was illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day. But all of Cromwell’s laws were repealed after the Interregnum, so this has not been the law since around 1660. We’re all safe.
Turkeys were domesticated in North America and first introduced to England in the 16th century. Yorkshireman William Strickland is believed to be the first person to bring them here in 1526. By the early 18th century, Norfolk farmers were leading gangs of turkeys on foot to London for market each winter. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that turkey became more affordable and started to rival goose as a Christmas bird of choice.
Altmarkt Square in the German city of Dresden has held a Striezelmarkt since the mid-15th century – one of the oldest festive markets in Germany. Since 1434, the market has preserved its distinctive character. The market’s name comes from the Christmas bread Stollen, which is also known as ‘Striezel’ in Middle High German. Every year the traditional Stollen Festival is celebrated in honour of this delicacy and each year the ceremonial first slice of the giant Stollen at the Striezelmarkt is followed by a Stollen procession through the Baroque Old Town.
There’s an age-old Scandinavian belief that ancestors might visit to enjoy a feast while the household sleeps on Christmas Eve. A welcoming light might be left on, plenty of food and drink placed on the table and a clean white cloth draped over a chair before retiring to bed. If there are black marks on the cloth the next morning, ancestors have risen from the grave to visit and dine.
The original form of the spiced liquor Glögi, otherwise known as mulled wine or Glühwein, was used to revive messengers and postmen who travelled on horseback or skis in cold weather in Nordic countries.
Planting a Seed
The Christmas Poinsettia plant became known to amateur botanist Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, from South Carolina, in Mexico in the 1820’s. He was the first American Minister to Mexico in 1825. He brought the plant across the border and it was later developed for commercial use in the USA. The Poinsettia leaves turn red to attract hummingbirds in winter. The change is triggered when night becomes longer than 12 hours.
The Christmas tree arrived in Britain with King George I from his native Germany. He reigned here from 1714 to 1727. His great-great-granddaughter Victoria, one day destined to be Queen, was just 13 when she wrote in her diary of seeing two tabletop Christmas trees in her uncle’s royal drawing room. It was Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children who helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain in 1848 when they were captured standing by one in an etching in “Illustrated News”.
The first Trafalgar Square Christmas tree donated by Norway was brought over in 1947 as a thank you for Britain’s help and friendship during World War II. Ever since, the giant Norwegian spruce has been given annually to the City of Westminster by the City of Oslo. After German invasion in April 1940, the Norwegian monarch and government moved to London for the duration of the war.
The beloved carol starts: “The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown…” And what would Christmas be without their inclusion? Ivy represents eternity, fidelity and strong affectionate attachment, such as wedded love and friendship, as well perennial life and immortality. Holly legends include the plant being brought into the house to protect it from malevolent faeries, holly being placed near the front door to ward off witches and being planted near a house to protect from lightning strikes. Science has shown us the latter is no old wives’ tale because the spines on holly leaves can truly act as miniature lightning conductors. Many holly and ivy carols were created during the 15th to 18th centuries and lots involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women. Holly is the male, Ivy the female. There had already been a pre-Christian winter celebration whereby a boy would dress in a suit of holly leaves and a girl in ivy to parade around the village, bringing nature through the darkest part of the year and hopefully into another spell of fertility. Carols touched on this theme, but many had holly and ivy vying for supremacy. The afore-mentioned carol “The Holly and the Ivy” sees ivy mentioned only in the first line and the repeated final verse as it plays a lyrical bit part to holly’s starring role and legendary connection to Jesus Christ. The symbolism connects holly’s prickly leaves with Christ’s crown of thorns and the berries with His drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation.
In pre-Christian times, the ‘Holly King’ was said to rule half the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the ‘Oak King’ defeated him to reign until the summer solstice again.
Mistletoe has an uncertain etymology but is likely to come from the Anglo-Saxon word mistiltan, which means “little dung twig”. That’s because the plant can be spread from tree-to-tree by bird droppings. The German word for dung is mist and the German word for branch is tang, so “mist-tang” is not a million miles removed from the Old English misiltan.
Every year, the Mayor and Vicar of Glastonbury in Somerset cut flowering sprigs from the Glastonbury Thorn for Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas table. Legend has it that St. Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail soon after the crucifixion of Christ and planted his staff on Wearyall Hill, which then grew into the original hawthorn tree.
Frankincense is an aromatic resin synonymous with the Nativity story. It was one of three gifts brought to the infant Jesus by the Magi, the others being gold and myrrh. True Frankincense comes specifically from four types of Boswellia tree, native to the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa. Frankincense was once considered to be as valuable as jewels and precious metals. It has been traded in North Africa, Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula for some 5,000 years. The English word frankincense is derived from the Old French expression ‘franc encens’ meaning ‘high-quality incense’.
Myrrh is a resin or gum extracted from small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora and it has been used through the centuries as a perfume, incense and even medicine. Myrrh gum commonly comes from Commiphora myrrha, native to parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in Africa and Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the Middle East. In the New Testament, Myrrh is one of three gifts, along with gold and frankincense, the Magi give to the infant Jesus Christ.
For agricultural workers, from around the Middle Ages onwards, Christmas holidays extended beyond the twelve days of Christmas. They would be free of work until ‘Plough Monday’ – the first Monday after Epiphany on January 6th.
Music Maestro Please
Charles Wesley, brother of Methodist Church founder John Wesley, wrote an average of around 112 carols and hymns a year in his lifetime – about 8,900 in total. The most famous: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written as a poem by copywriter Robert May in 1939 for a chain of department stores to attract customers. It was set to music 10 years later and has since sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.
James Lord Pierpont’s song “Jingle Bells” was published under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in the autumn of 1857 – and was written not for Christmas, but for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all-time. The accepted definition of a white Christmas in Britain – the one used most widely, notably by those placing and taking bets, and acknowledged by the Met Office – is for a single snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of December 25th at a specified location. That includes among a mixed shower of rain and snow.
We understand that the earliest mention in English of the words “Christmas carol” is in a 1426 work by John “The Blind” Audelay, a chaplain who made a list of 25 “caroles of Cristemas” that were sung by revellers who went from door-to-door during the season.
Sheffield is still a stronghold of the festive tradition of singing Christmas carols en mass in local pubs – something that grew in Victorian times when the Church of England wanted less raucous carolling events. There can be many melodies for just one set of lyrics. For example, there may be as many as ten different versions of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”. Tunes vary from village to village. Among the best-known carolling pubs are the Royal at Dungworth and Blue Ball at Worrall.
Postmen in Victorian Britain wore red uniforms and were nicknamed robins. It’s a widely held belief that the robin pictures on Christmas cards are paying homage to the men who deliver them, although it its perhaps more accurate to believe robins were already associated with the festive season through an age-old link to the holy season…and for the fact this is a most visible bird set against the stark colours of winter.
Christmas crackers were the creation of British confectioner Tom Smith and first appeared in 1847. Smith got his inspiration from a trip to Paris where he saw sweets wrapped in paper with twists at either end.
Sir Henry Cole, who introduced the penny post in Britain in 1840, also created the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843. They sold for as much as a shilling each – an average man’s weekly wage at the time. Before cards came along people would add Christmas messages to letters but often with only the briefest of references to the festive season. In those days, the receiver had to pay for letters and if he/she didn’t want to pay, letters went to a ‘dead letters office’. This lost the post office a great deal of money: thus the introduction of the Penny Black. Most of the original 1,000 print-run of Cole’s cards was in colour, with only a small selection in monochrome. There are believed to be just 12 in existence today, only three monochrome. They can fetch thousands of pounds at auction. One sold at Devizes, Wiltshire in November 2001 for £20,000. It was originally sent by Cole to his grandmother in 1843 and was hand-coloured by London illustrator John Calcott Horsley. The pictured scene was criticised for promoting drunkenness…it included an adult feeding wine to a child. Cards eventually became more affordable for all, but it wasn’t until 1881 that Christmas cards became so popular as to force the Postmaster General to make the first appeal to “post early for Christmas”. Now more than 800 million cards are sent annually in the UK.
The colour of choice for Father Christmas used to be brown or green. But it is a myth that the 1930s Coca Cola advertisements created the Santa in red we know today. He is depicted in a red costume as early as the Victorian era, including Thomas Nast cartoons of the 1860s and 1870s.
Snow was a key component in Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories and this was influenced by his childhood. His fictional Christmases were always white Christmases. This taps into his earliest memories because from the year he was born in 1812 there were eight white Christmases in succession in England. It was the time of Britain’s ‘Little Ice Age’ – a period from about 1550 to 1850 that often saw bitterly cold winters. Frost Fairs, attended by thousands of people, were regularly held on the frozen River Thames, the last of them in 1814.
It was in the Victorian era in the city of Liverpool that the world’s first Christmas Grotto was established in 1879 by London businessman David Lewis, when he set up Lewis’s department store. Known as “Christmas Fairyland”, a huge 10,000 square feet was given over to the grotto. Father Christmas took residence, surrounded by characters from children’s fairytales like Aladdin and Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, and gave presents to young visitors. The idea was adopted in the USA, which was linked to Liverpool by Transatlantic liners.
The King’s Speech
The first Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth by a King or Queen was in 1932. Delivered by the Queen’s grandfather King George V, the 251 words were supplied by author Rudyard Kipling. There was no broadcast in 1936 or 1938. The annual custom began in 1939. Queen Elizabeth’s first Christmas Day message was in 1952 on wireless. It was transmitted on television but with sound only. Her first televised message with both vision and sound came in 1957. Some viewers complained that it had been interrupted, rather bizarrely, by interference from an American police radio transmission. The Queen’s speech is what most people commonly call the annual address, but the accurate title is, in fact, “Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech”. Although it has long been broadcast on both radio and television, there was no address in 1969 when the Queen instead wrote her message. The Royals believed they had been in the television limelight enough already that year after the documentary release “Royal Family”. From 1986 to 1991, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough produced the Christmas Day address. It was in 1992 that the Queen famously referred to the year of family divorce and devastating fire as “annus horribilis”. To this day, the Queen’s speech is shown at 3pm in the UK on Christmas Day, with TV networks alternating the production duties each year. Channel 4 broadcasts an alternative speech at the same time featuring controversial, topical or comical speakers.
“The Yule Log” is the title of the simplest of television programmes made in the USA. A static shot of a Yule Log burning on a New York hearth, with Christmas stockings hung from the fireplace, was first broadcast in 1966 and was shown until 1989. It was some three hours in length and originally aired on New York channel WPIX. A new shorter version of a fireplace’s flickering flames was made in 1970 and played on a continuous loop, without commercial interruption, to the sound of Christmas music. It was revived in 2001 and has since spread to other media outlets owned by WPIX’s parent company.
The Gift of Giving
We have all heard the phrase it is better to give than receive. But do you know exactly where it comes from? It’s from the Bible, Acts 20:35. In Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian Elders he says: “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said ‘It is more blessed to give than receive’.”
If you received every gift in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” you would have 364 presents in total.
December 21st is St. Thomas’s Day in the Anglican Church – a traditional day of charity, which once included donating flour to the poor to bake bread. It is also often the day of the Winter Solstice (which falls between Dec 20-23), thus the old poem: “St. Thomas Grey, St. Thomas Grey, longest night and shortest day.”
Where would the great gift-bringer Father Christmas be without his reindeer? But Donner might be more aptly named Donna. That’s because older male reindeer shed their antlers around early December, so Santa’s sleigh is more likely to be pulled by females. They keep their antlers until summer.
The world’s largest Christmas gift is the Statue of Liberty. The French gave it to the United States in 1886 to commemorate the alliance of France and the USA during the American Revolution. The statue in New York is 46.5 metres high and weighs 225 tons. We’d like to have seen someone wrap that.
Henry VIII spent the equivalent of £13.5 million in today’s money on gifts, as well as food and entertainment, in the first Christmas of his reign in 1509. This is according to the excellent book “A Tudor Christmas” by Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke. They point out £483 went to a woman for bringing a perfumed pomander to keep the palace air smelling sweeter. Nineteen-year-old Henry’s present to the court, no doubt.
Happy Birthday to You
Iconic actor Humphrey Bogart was born on Christmas Day 1899. Other famous people born on December 25th include Sir Isaac Newton (1642), Helena Rubinstein (1870), Conrad Hilton (1887), Quentin Crisp (1908), Kenny Everett (1944), Sissy Spacek (1949), Annie Lennox (1954), The Pogues’ Shane McGowan (1957) and England cricketer Alastair Cook (1984).
Holy, Holy, Holy!
It is not some secular plot to replace the ‘Christ’ in Christmas with the letter X. This is a misconception. The word Christmas has been abbreviated in English for at least a thousand years and Xmas has its origins in the early Christian church. Also, the first letter of Jesus Christ’s name in the Greek language is X.
Although it is widely accepted that the three wise men are named Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar, the Bible does not state their names – or even how many wise men visited the infant Jesus. The relevant passage reads: “…there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem….” The three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh have led to the assumption there were three kings.
In early December 1914, Pope Benedict XV requested an official Christmas truce, pleading that “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His request was rejected.
Around the time King Charles I was captured and beheaded amid civil war in 1649, English Protestant Puritans banned Christmas in England for some 13 years from around 1647 to 1660.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Christmas decorations were not taken down on Twelfth Night but at Candlemas on February 2nd. It was considered bad luck to do away with the festive decorations any sooner. Candlemas marks the purification of the Virgin Mary 40 days after she gave birth to Jesus. All candles to be used in the coming year were traditionally blessed on this day. Roman Catholic families and churches may still choose to keep up their Christmas trees until February 2nd.
For centuries, the most important church service in the western world has been Mass. When Mass was always performed in Latin, the service ended with the words “Ite. Missa Est.” In English that’s “Go. It is finished.” The name Mass derived from that ending. The Mass held on December 25th was named after Jesus Christ, marking the birth of the Holy Infant. Therefore, we arrive at Christ’s Mass. The church service eventually gave its name to the entire day: Christ’s Mass Day evolving into Christmas Day. The earliest recorded use of the term for the day itself is in Old English from 1068: Cristesmaesse. Middle English Cristemasse followed and in 1131 the day was recorded as Cristes-Messe. And so the pattern continued until we reached the word we all know and use today: Christmas.
The twelve days of Christmas are said to be rooted in the time it supposedly took the Magi to travel to see the infant Jesus. It was in the ninth century that King Alfred the Great made it law to observe Church feasts, including the winter celebrations. December 25th was declared a holiday, as were the days that followed…twelve in all. As the previous paragraph explains, it was only in the next century that “Christ’s Mass” on December 25th became Christmas and the country could embrace the twelve days of Christmas.
The Saxon king Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas Day 855 and William the Conqueror was crowned England’s king on Christmas Day 1066. As the baby Jesus, the new-born king, entered the world on this day, it was considered an auspicious time to become a king on earth.
The last night of the year is known in Austria as the Holy Sylvester – traditionally a night of fools and fun, frolics and fireworks, dinners and dancing. You see December 31st is also St. Sylvester’s Day, honouring Pope Sylvester I. He led the church from 314 until his death on December 31st 335. Legend tells how he cured people of leprosy and baptised the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Other countries and regions may refer to New Year’s Eve by using a variant of Sylvester’s name including Bavaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Slovenia.
York Minster is the only UK cathedral to allow mistletoe through its doors and on to its altar for Christmas. It is considered a pagan plant and it was banned from Christian sites in the Middle Ages. But because the plant grows on the trunks and branches of other trees, the Minster viewed – and continues to view – this as an example of living in harmony. When mistletoe was tied to the altar centuries ago, it came with a declaration of public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom. Criminals could even seek amnesty on Christmas Eve at the steps of the Minster as part of this proclamation. Baddies please note: this is no longer the case.
More than six million rolls of Sellotape are sold in the run-up to Christmas. That’s about 370,000 kilometres in length – enough to stretch round the circumference of the earth more than nine times.
Sticking on a Christmas stamp when the cards are written is a final festive flourish. But it was not until Christmas 1966 that seasonal stamps were issued in Britain. The Post Office issued commemorative stamps for special events and occasions as early as 1924, but specific Christmas stamps were only available from December 1st, 1966. Both designs, a snowman and Good King Wenceslas, were designed by six-year-old viewers of BBC television children’s programme “Blue Peter”.
Elaborate entertainments called Masques were staged in the English Royal Court of James I. One such feast of acting, dancing and singing was written by the great playwright Ben Jonson and entitled “Christmas His Masque”. It was performed in December 1616, with the main character named ‘Christmas’. The show made a political point about the restrictions increasingly being imposed on Christmas festivities by the Puritans of the Protestant Reformation.
In Georgian Britain (1714-1830), Christmas games included Bullet Pudding (a messy game involving a mound of flour), Snap-dragon (taking raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy), Hoodman Blind (a kind of Blind Man’s Bluff), Shoe the Wild Mare (hitting a beam while dangling from it on a wooden slat known as the ‘mare’) and Hot Cockles (another blindfolding/hitting game) – as well as the more sedate charades and cards.
And There’s More…
Decorations at the Royal Sandringham Estate in Norfolk are traditionally not removed until after February 6th. Sandringham is where the Queen spends Christmas and she likes to maintain the decorations as a tribute to her late father, King George VI. He passed away on February 6th 1952. The Queen chooses to spend the anniversary at Sandringham each year to privately mark the occasion.
The Yorkshire city of Sheffield boasts the unusual Christmas tradition of sword dancing. Dressed in leather riding boots, white trousers and tunics (like those worn by Hussars), the eight-man team of Handsworth Sword Dancers performs with long steel swords at the Market Cross in Woodhouse and the church in Handsworth on Boxing Day. They are accompanied by musicians playing such instruments as fiddles, concertinas and melodeons. You will find a similar sword dancing team at Grenoside performing on Boxing Day outside the Old Harrow pub. Wooden sword dancers from Flamborough also keep the tradition going on the Yorkshire coast. There is no accurate date of when this tradition first began, but there is a theory it could have something to do with demobbed soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars.
The North Yorkshire town of Richmond plays host to one of the oldest Christmas Eve traditions in the UK – the Poor Old Hoss. One man wears a long black cloak, to which is attached a decorated horse’s head skull. He’s then paraded through the streets, followed by ‘huntsmen’ in red coats singing the ditty “Poor Old Hoss”. This is believed to be an ancient pagan fertility ritual. Nowadays, it serves purely to bring fun and mirth.