Christmas, the annual celebration of Christ’s birth, is held on December 25. Although most people know what Christmas is and what it means to them, few know everything about the widely celebrated, longstanding holiday. According to some surveys, nine-in-ten Americans say that they celebrate Christmas. For 46 percent of those Americans, they say Christmas is primarily a religious observation, whereas a slight majority of Americans report it being a cultural and social event. With a variety of cultural, social, religious, historical, economical, commercial, and other factors shaping how this holiday has evolved over the years, there are plenty of fun facts to glean about Christmas. Read below to uncover some neat trivia to whip out at the next Christmas party.
1. The classic evergreen was a symbol of winter holiday long before Christmas became a holiday.
Since ancient times, evergreen trees have been used to celebration winter season. As one of the few plants that sustain live throughout harsh, rigid, cold seasons, evergreen is a sign of life and perseverance in difficult times. Latvia is the first known place to have abandoned winter celebration by having the first decorated Christmas tree in 1510. This change made it to print in Germany in 1531. In modern times, some sought after Christmas tree types are: Scotch pine, Douglas fir, noble fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, Virginia pine, and white pine. Each has subtle differences in average height, density, lifespan, color, needle texture, and needle quantity.
2. Christmas trees are not necessarily evergreens.
In some parts of the world, evergreens are not super accessible. To show Christmas spirit, people have used other types of trees such as cherry trees and hawthorn trees. Hawthorns, also called thornapples or May-trees, are primarily ornamental, known for its white blossoms. Although commonly referred to as a tree, it is actually a large shrub. Cherry trees are a type of fruit plant that produces the delicious cherry fruits as well as beautiful blossoms in colors such as pink and white. It is true that evergreens are iconic Christmas fixtures in many parts of the world, especially the United States, but Christmas can be celebrated with any type of tree. It’s the spirit that counts; think about Charlie Brown’s sparse but loved Christmas tree.
3. Before bulbs, there was fire.
These days, most Christmas trees are adorned in strands of lights. White, blue, gold, and multicolor lights are some of the many options. Then, there are various shapes to consider: rounded bulbs, tear drop bulbs, icicles strands, small bulbs, medium bulbs, large bulbs, extra large bulbs, tubular bulbs, and so on and so forth. There are even flashing lights and lights that coordinate with music to flash on command. Before all of these options, Christmas trees were lit with small candles. Today, open flames on trees are often considered fire hazards and too manually-involved. The tradition of lighting candles on trees started in the 17th century and ended for the most part when Edward Johnson—assistant of Thomas Edison—applied electric technology to trees in the late 1800s. At this point, in 1900, large stores began decorating and drawing in shoppers with large, lavish, artificially-lit trees.
4. Preparing for Christmas is a year-round process for many industries.
In about 1850, commercially sold Christmas trees became available. Today, of the live trees people buy, only 2 percent of Christmas trees are obtained from the wild; 98 percent of Christmas trees come from farms. Nearly 50 million seedlings are planted each year in the United States. After 6 to 10 years, mature trees are ready for harvest. To get the classic Christmas shape, nearly every tree undergoes some trimming here and there. Not including artificial tree production, the Christmas tree industry employees around 100,000 people. The tree industry is not the only one working year-round to develop products specially for Christmas. Toy industries, card industries, decoration industries, and food industries among others have Christmas in mind constantly, in order to prepare for the big holiday.
5. Historically, holiday decorations have little to do with aesthetics or décor.
Before Christianity was invented, people decorated trees for winter celebrations, believing these year-round plants to have special significance. Some believed these trees could ward away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, illness, and other supernatural ails. Other cultures decorated trees to celebrate or pay tribute to higher powers. For instance, Romans added trinkets and pictures of the sun god to their evergreens. Likewise, Celtic priests and sorcerers decorated trees with hung apples and lit candles to welcome winter solstice.
6. Christ’s birthday is not necessarily on December 25th.
The true date of Christ’s birth is unknown; however, since the 4th century, it has been celebrated on December 25th. Using the Philocalian Calendar, 3rd century chronographers figured that Christ’s birthday occurred around the winter solstice. Contemporary historians believe that this was fabricated, and that the church chose this date for Christmas festivals to counter pagan solstice festivals. Now, it is believed that Christ was born in the summer months, probably in July. However, Christ’s mass still occurs in late December, a tradition to many.
7. Christmas cards have been around since the 1800s.
Although Christmas cards are known today as a highly overpriced and specialized commercial industry, cards are traditionally handmade. People wrote their own messages in there. The origins of the first Christmas card designs are debatable, but many believe they came from England presses, where wood engravers sold religiously-themed and family-themed prints. The first known design reads, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You,” as a family of adults, children, poor, rich, sick, and healthy sip wine and gather around one another. Only about 1000 cards were produced of this print, but it made a seismic impact. With the postal service, regular people had the ability to send and receive written correspondence regularly, which encouraged card exchanges.
8. Christmas is recognized, celebrated, and enjoyed by plenty of people who are not Christians.
Because of its commercial and cultural influence, Christmas is now a holiday that reaches far beyond Christian circles. In countries with different dominant religious practices, Christmas memorabilia is used as decoration in December. For example, in Thailand where 90 percent of the population or more practices Buddhism and Christmas is not a national holiday, Christmas trinkets are sold and displayed. Santa is a popular one. Some even choose to exchange gifts on December 25th, Christmas day.
9. Santa-watching is an increasingly high-tech pursuit.
It is challenging to pinpoint where, exactly, the idea of waiting for an intimidating Saint Nick to deliver gifts based on behavior really changed course to a jovial Santa Claus working hard with his elves, wives, reindeer, and other helpers to deliver gifts to every child around the world. Regardless of how this tradition emerged and shifted routes, what is notable is that Santa tracking is a popular phenomenon that kids await with anticipation. To meet this enthusiasm, over 60 years ago, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) started to update listeners on Santa’s Christmas Eve sleigh route. A newspaper misprinted the number to a hotline to call to get updates on Santa’s journey. This misprinted number was strangely the number to the Director of Operations for the U.S. Continental Air Defense, who was Colonel Shoup. He told his staff to give children updates on Santa’s flight coordinates throughout the night, and they did. Today, visitors of their website can read and see live updates through technologies like video streaming. Even apps are capable of connecting to Santa’s whereabouts. Ask Cortana, Siri, or Alexa for his location. Even OnStar—an in-vehicle safety and security feature of General Motors—can press a button to locate the man in red.
10. Charles Dickens’ legendary writings about Christmas were shaped by the “little ice age” between the 16th and 19th centuries.
During the “little ice age,” global temperatures were alarmingly lower than during other centuries. Dickens grew up during this time, which is why he experienced great snows and chills during his first several childhood Christmases. The idea of a “white Christmas” is ingrained in culture today, but it was really a standout phenomenon. Still, these words have graced literature, songs, radio reports, and weather expectations for December 25th. Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? Thank Charles Dickens for that iconic imagery and heartfelt expectation, filled with wonder, awe, and hardship.
11. Christmas songs are created by a diverse set of singers, studio workers, musicians, recording technicians, and songwriters.
Although Christmas songs run the gamut from religious to secular, it might be surprising to learn that some of the most well-known Christmas jams were written or co-written by Jewish people. Some of these numbers include, “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “O Holy Night.” Also, a fair number of songs that are considered Christmas tunes were written for other holidays or the winter season in general. For example, “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving. Christmas is a money-making industry. Plus, there is something contagious about an optimistic, nostalgic, good-natured, seasonal song, regardless of whether or not Christmas is observed.
12. Christmas is an evolving holiday.
Although its ancient origins are purely religious, Christmas has seen some major changes overtime. During Puritan rule, Christians went underground and celebrated in hidden ways. This happened several times throughout history. Another massive change in Christmas coincided with globalization and capitalism. When trade routes and international travel became more prevalent, multicultural technologies, products, publications, ideas, and people were shared. With advancements in transportation and communication, Christmas diversified. This is how customs like the Christmas tree, Christmas lights, Christmas cards, Christmas movies, and other holiday interpretations emerged and spread throughout the world. Even within the United States, different families have their own music, food, and decoration traditions based on world influences. For example, Italian-Americans are known to enjoy a bounty of seafood on Christmas.