Amid the holiday buzz of wrapping presents, decorating trees, sipping cider and making snow angels, you probably don't give much thought to this far-reaching holiday that's celebrated all around the world. How did it start, what's up with Santa, and is Rudolph really female?
Here are a few fun and festive facts for you to ponder over the Christmas season:
1. As late as the last century, Christmas wasn't even a legal holiday.
In an Act of Parliament in 1644, Christmas was banned in England as it was associated with revelry and merrymaking. When the Puritans left for the New World, they brought their distaste of the holiday with them. For almost two decades in the 17th century, Christmas was illegal in what would eventually become the United States. Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a public holiday in 1836, and Oklahoma held out until 1907.
2. Is it a Hallmark holiday?
Hallmark (which was originally known as Hall Brothers) introduced their first Christmas cards in 1915, five years after the company started and eight years after it became a legal holiday in all U.S. states. The Hall brothers (Joyce and Rollie) also invented the modern wrapping paper after they ran of traditional colored tissue paper.
3. The abbreviation "Xmas" dates back to the 16th century.
There's a common misconception that the word Xmas is a secular attempt to remove the religious reference from Christmas, but in fact it is every bit as religious as Christmas. X stems from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word ???Ï?Ï?Ï?Ï? that translates into English as "Christ." The -mas suffix is derived from the Old English word for "mass."
4. The name Santa Claus is derived from Old Dutch folklore.
It's believed that the North American name of Santa Claus stems from Sinterklaas, the traditional Dutch figure for Saint Nicholas. (Sinterklaas is colloquial Dutch for Saint Nicholas.)
5. Kris Kringle is a corrupted pronunciation of "Christ child."
During the Reformation in 16th to 17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the name of the traditional gift bringer from Sinterklaas to Christkindl (Christ Child), which was later bastardized in English to become Kris Kringle.
6. Santa Claus wasn't always a portly, jolly old man dressed in a red suit.
Prior to 1931, Santa was depicted as everything from a tall, gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf and wearing all manner of garb from a bishop's robe to a Norse huntsman's animal skin. The figure we know today was influenced by the 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and the illustrations of Civil War-era cartoonist Thomas Nast, who refined the popular image of Santa over 30 years (even changing the color of his coat from tan to red).
7. Santa Claus isn't always about cookies and milk.
In Britain and Australia, kids like to leave him sherry (or beer) and mince pies. In Sweden and Norway, Santa's given rice porridge, and in Ireland, he gets Guinness and either Christmas pudding or mince pies.
8. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started as a marketing gimmick for Montgomery Ward stores.
In 1939, copywriter Robert L. May was asked to come up with a Christmas story for the Montgomery Ward company's promotional booklets. May drew from his own personal experience (of being teased as a child) and the tale of "The Ugly Duckling" to create a lovable underdog character ostracized by the reindeer community for having a physical abnormality — his red nose! Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of their holiday booklet featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and tremendous demand for licensing of the character followed.
9. Santa's reindeer could very well be female.
Despite having masculine names like Rudolph, Donner, and Blitzen, popular culture has suggested that Santa's reindeer could, in fact, be all female. The reasoning? Most male reindeer shed their antlers in early winter, with mostly females retaining their antlers in late December.
10. Mistletoe is magical.
According to Celtic and Teutonic legend, mistletoe has mystical powers: it can heal wounds, bestow fertility, and be used as both an aphrodisiac and an antidote to poison. The custom of hanging mistletoe over a doorway was held in belief that it warded off evil spirits and kept them from crossing your threshold.
11. The Germans brought us the tradition of the Christmas tree.
The modern Christmas tree originated during the Renaissance of early modern Germany, though it's believed that the symbolism of evergreen trees can be traced back to pre-Christian winter rites. German pagans used to decorate evergreen trees to scare away the devil and brighten the dark, gloomy days of the winter solstice. German settlers eventually brought the custom to America in the 1800s. While the originators preferred their trees small (about 4 feet in height), Americans liked them to be floor-to-ceiling spectacles!
12. The first Christmas trees were sold commercially in the United States in 1851.
They were simply taken at random from forests! By the 1900s, the natural supply of evergreen trees began to be decimated due to overharvesting. This led to the creation of the first Christmas tree farm in 1901, when W.V. McGalliard planted 25,000 Norway spruce on his farm in New Jersey. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even got in on the action by planting a Christmas tree farm on his estate in Hyde Park, New York, in the 1930s.
13. Real Christmas trees are a renewable resource.
Christmas trees are grown on farms just like any other agricultural crop. For every Christmas tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted in its place. It takes 7 to 10 years for a tree to grow from a seedling to an 8-foot tree, and sometimes less if the tree is irrigated.
14. Black Friday wasn't always about shopping.
The term was coined in Philadelphia, where it was originally used to describe the heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic that would occur the day after Thanksgiving. It was first heard before 1961 and began to gain broader use outside of Philadelphia around 1975. Black Friday eventually took on a new explanation: while retailers traditionally operated at a financial loss from January through November ("in the red"), the day officially kicked off a shopping season when retailers could finally turn a profit ("in the black").
15. Some people stay home on Black Friday...
... And wait to shop for bargains on Monday. Thus was born Cyber Monday, a trend that retailers began to notice around 2003 or 2004. Too busy or too tired to shop over Thanksgiving weekend, many consumers turned to the Internet from home or work the following Monday. In 2013, online sales on Cyber Monday grew by 20.6% over the previous year. As a counterpoint, Small Business Saturday started in 2010 to encourage consumers to shop their small local brick-and-mortar stores rather than the big boxes of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The term "Small Business Saturday" is actually a registered trademark of American Express, which conceived and promoted the event through national radio, television, and social media campaigns to help its small merchant account holders.