Why we celebrate Christmas on the 25th, eat mince pies and put up trees
Pricewatch’s 12 fun facts of Christmas explores the origins of our modern traditions
Not only did Martin Luther gift the world Protestantism, he also gave it the Christmas tree
So here it is, merry Christmas everybody’s having fu . . . um, a socially distanced and responsible time in small and sober groups from not more than two households. Yay! Yes, we know you’re probably sick of hearing the phrase “A Christmas like no other” right? Pricewatch certainly is.
So rather than endlessly focusing on the ways the season to be jolly is going to be different this year - and we have to hold our hands up and confess to having done a fair bit of focusing on that already in recent weeks - we thought we’d pause for a minute for an entirely irregular and random feature which we have decided to call Christmas Unwrapped or the 12 fun facts of Christmas.
Many of the festive traditions we are eternally familiar with come with a cost and even in the face of a global pandemic, Ireland will almost certainly retain its position on top of the European league of seasonal spenders this year and there won’t be many households with change from a grand once all the presents, food, booze and the rest have been consumed.
By contrast our Dutch friends will most likely be bottom of the league again this year but then again they do exchange gifts on the evening of December 5th when Sinterklass and his uncomfortably incomprehensible (at least to us) servant Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) pay them a visit, so maybe the comparison is unfair. Anyways, where were we?
1. First things first. Was Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ, born on Christmas Day as Boney M would have you believe? Of course he wasn’t. There is no suggestion anywhere in the bible of a birth date for Jesus, something which prompted the oh so literal Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical brethren to ban Christmas altogether.
He was the first person to take a sceptical look at the biggest birthday in Christendom. Back in the day, hardcore Christians loathed heathen birth celebrations, preferring instead to mark the deathday of their saintly martyrs. The first mention of December 25th as a day of any significance came from early Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus in 221. Another century passed before it was chosen as the date of the Feast of the Nativity and the notion didn’t reach this part of the world until the end of the eighth century. And why was December 25th chosen? One enduring theory is that Christians piggybacked on the Roman holiday Dies Solis Invicti Nati which, as you obviously know from your Lockdown Latin classes, translates into The Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. It is also known as the winter solstice. Birth of the sun, birth of the Son – see what they did there?
There is another, more convoluted theory which identifies the spring equinox of March 21st as the exact date the world was created by God. On the fourth day he said let there be light and that is the day of Jesus’s conception. Fast forward nine months and you have his birthday. Or maybe it is down to the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranicht who gave us Yule or Yultdide.
2. And when did Christmas becomes so jolly and an excuse to exchange expensive presents? Well, you can probably blame a sickly boy from Victorian England for it all - or at least a big chunk of it. From the 17th century the aforementioned puritanical zeal coupled with the zero craic Industrial Revolution had all but killed Christmas off in England and its sphere of influence. Then, in October 1843, Charles Dickens sat down to write A Christmas Carol. It took him just six weeks, but his book set the template for Christmas Future, creating many of the great expectations today’s children have. He gave us the phrase “merry Christmas” and made presents the norm. So, thanks for that Charles. To be fair to him he could not have known his story would make the mark it did and he was not driven by an urge to see future parents hand over their credit cards to toy shops in exchange for plastic tat and horrendously expensive games consoles in the run up to the big day.
He actually wanted to highlight the role of education in counteracting poverty which is why he made Christmas a festival of generosity, moving it away from the glum and unpopular religious festival it had been. December 25th became “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time . . . when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”.
3. For some people, Advent is a time of spiritual enrichment and more power to them. But, let’s be honest, for even more people Advent is about finding and then eating chocolate or beer or whiskey or make-up hidden behind little walls of perforated cardboard once a day for 24 days leading up to Christmas. Advent is obviously a liturgical event and the first calendars, sold in Germany in the 1850s, reflected that. Now you are far more likely to get a Frozen or Where’s Wally Advent calendar than one with any class of religious connotation.
Plum puddings apparently became Christmassy because the number of ingredients matched the 12 apostles and Jesus
4. Not only did Martin Luther gift the world Protestantism, he also gave it the Christmas tree. Well, sort of. By all accounts - or at least by the accounts Pricewatch read last week - he was one of the first people to light up an indoor Christmas tree with candles and he did so to celebrate the glory of God. For many years after popularising this fire hazard, it was largely confined to Germany. But then Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, himself a son of Germany, brought the tradition to England. It didn’t really take off in Ireland until the 1940s. There was a time was when Irish trees would be draped with one or two sets of feebly-flickering lights that would have to be untangled and then repaired by grumpy parents. Now, with prices of outside lights falling, homes across the land flash like Las Vegas casinos. The LED lights are more reliable nowadays, which means the fun game of trying to work out why the lights aren’t working is no more. This year more than half a million real trees will find their way to homes across an Ireland, more than ever before.
5. There may be some holly too. But do you know why? Well, the leaves are said to represent the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross and the red berries are the blood he spilled during the crucifixion. Nothing very jolly about that, really, and it hardly seems like an appropriate thing to bring into the house to celebrate his birthday unless you are a hardcore Christian from 1,900 years ago with a strong commitment to the end, rather than the beginning of days.
6. Staying with plants, while the mistletoe is seen as a cute sprig to kiss under - although not this year, unless you can work out how to kiss while staying two metres apart - it was regarded by the Celts as a symbol of fertility. They reckoned its white seeds looked like semen. Singing from the same page, the ancient Greeks called it “oak sperm”. The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding, while according to Norse legend, a character called Loki tricked a blind god called Hodur into murdering his twin brother - called Balder - with an arrow made of mistletoe. It was the only plant that could kill Balder, you see. You can use this anecdote to replace the kiss if you find yourself standing close to mistletoe with someone you fancy this season. You are welcome.
7. Between the Christmas morning fry, the turkey, the ham, the roasted potatoes, the sprouts, the gravy and all the other trimmings you will get through more than 3,000 calories on December 25th. But you are only getting started. There is also the biscuits and the mince pies (with cream) and the boozy plum pudding and the sherry-spiked trifle and the fancy cheese and the Quality Street. On Christmas Day, you will easily wolf down more than 6,000 calories or three times an adult’s recommended daily intake. Throw in a few glasses of wine, a couple of glasses of Baileys and maybe an Irish coffee and your calorie intake will come dangerously close to 10,000. But what’s it all about?
The centre piece of all festive meals used to be a boar which became the Christmas ham we still eat today. Goose was popular because unlike other contenders they had little year-round value. Cows provided milk and chickens laid eggs. Turkeys only became associated with Christmas during the reign of the only British monarch to lost their virginity in the Curragh, Edward VII. He made turkey for Christmas a thing, although only for the loaded because back then a turkey back then cost almost a week’s wages - today they can be bought frozen for less than a tenner.
Plum puddings were made with plums and then any dried fruit. They apparently became Christmassy because the number of ingredients matched the 12 apostles and Jesus. Mince pies were so called because they originally contained a lot of cheap mutton minced up and preserved with fruits and spices. The pies had their roots in Catholicism and were thus hated by the Puritans who, as, it must be clear, by now, really really hated Christmas.
8. When Pricewatch were a lad no one ever wore a Christmas jumper. They just weren’t a thing until maybe 15 years ago. In the early days there were only a handful of them. Then they started selling in pop-up shops - which themselves were something of a novelty. And then Ryan Tubridy started wearing them on the Late Late Toy Show, as did hoards of drunken people doing the 12 pubs of Christmas. All of a sudden the shelves of Penneys and some fancier shops were groaning under the weight of the things. They now come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they light up. Often they play music. What’s not to love?
9. Is there a better, more uplifting Christmas carol than O’Holy Night? It can be blamed for starting a musical tradition that, ultimately, brought us Slade and Wizzard duelling over the Christmas number one. The first AM radio programme was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1906 by a Canadian inventor called Reginald Fessenden. He discovered that by combining two frequencies together, radio waves could broadcast something other than Morse code. The second song he chose to play on day one was O Holy Night. He played it himself, on the violin. The first song was by Ombra Mai Fu, opening aria from Handel’s opera Serse.
Santa will have to eat about 400,000 carrots in this country alone
10. The Elf on the Shelf is only 15 years old but it has aged many parents by considerably more than that. It started out in the US in 2005 as a cute book written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. The idea is lovely. A scout elf appears magically in early December to keep an eye on the children before reporting back to Santa at night and then trekking across the world back to the house. There is no need for quarantining for elves you see. They then hide in the living room upon their return and children have to find them each morning. Waking up at 4am and realising that as a parent you have failed to check if the elf has in fact returned and found a new hiding place is great fun.
11. “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612,” is the less than snappy message which was inscribed on the first Christmas card sent by a chap called Michael Maier to James I of England 408 years ago. It didn’t catch on, or at least it took almost 200 years before cards for Christmas did. The man widely credited with creating the modern tradition is Sir Henry Cole who also founded the Victoria and Albert Museum. His first cards produced in 1843 featured merry folk drinking wine and were considered quite risqué. It took another 30 years or so for cards to become a real feature of Christmas. They still are today. Billions of them will be sent all over the world in 2020. It is hard to knock them. Hard, but not impossible. They are hideously wasteful things which cost a euro to send. They are looked at once, displayed for a couple of weeks at best and then - if they are lucky - get recycled. Around 3,000 cards come from one tree so if just 5 billion cards are sent each year more than 160 million trees will have to be felled to meet demand.
12. While we all know that Santa Claus comes from the North Pole and takes care of most presents, there are echoes of the big man in St Nicholas, a fourth century loaded bishop who gave gifts to the poor on the sly. Legend has it that he started his rounds after coming across a man with three daughters and no dowries for any of them. Taking pity on the man, the good king dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney. They fell into a stocking which had been left to dry by the fire. It’s all changed now, mind you and Santa takes care of business. His sleigh is pulled by reindeer and if we assume that half the children under the age of 10 in Ireland leave carrots out for the red-nosed reindeer on Christmas Eve, he will have to eat about 400,000 of them in this country alone. A carrot weighs about 75g and there are about 13 carrots in 1kg. Tesco is selling 2kg of carrots for €1.79 which means one carrot costs 14.5 cent and Ireland will spend close to €60,000 feeding Rudolph this year. The cookies for Santa Claus will cost more again.