20 Christmas Facts You Probably Never Knew

By Jack Tomlin on at

Merry Christmas trivia fans! You've likely come across Yuletide Christmas facts round-ups that are pretty dire affairs, filled with one-sentence pieces of information that raise more questions than they answer, or just blindly fuel a myth (illegal mince pies! ha! you'll see). That's no fun and might make you sound silly down the pub.

So, here are 20 better-explained Christmas facts and figures, ranging from the dozen-and-one strange Icelandic Santas, toxic foliage, outrageously expensive Christmas cards, global spending rankings and a whole lot more.

Pawnbrokers Literally Symbolise Christmas

Image via Flickr

Hear me out. The three gold balls that dangle above a Pawnbroker's shop are connected to the charitable work of a certain Saint Nick, Saint Nicholas the person who inspired the rotund bloke in a red-and-white suit we call Santa Claus – Father Christmas – and ultimately the caretaker at primary school who slings on a cheap felt suit once a year to keep the kiddies believing.

But it all started with Nikolaos of Myra, a fourth-century saint of Christianity in Asia Minor, in what was then part of Greece but is now the Antalya region of Turkey. After losing his parents at young age, he used Jesus's idea of selling property and giving the proceedings to the poor as way of using his inheritance.

As part of this charitable work, Nikolaos was said to give gold, often in the form of coins, to impoverished people such as wives requiring capital for marriage dowries, and over the passage of time these gold coins came to be represented as three gold balls. In connection with those kind deeds, in 1514 Pope Julius II made Nikolaos of Myra the patron saint of monetus pieatarius missions, novel schemes which involved the donation of money to the poor via low-interest loans, a pre-cursor to modern-day pawnbroking.

Saint Nicholas depiction and pawnbroker balls via Shutterstock

This is all a tad apocryphal, as many sources now credit the symbols' later links with the Medici family of the Lombard region in Italy. Nevertheless, the patron saint of pawnbrokers is Saint Nicholas, so the connection between the two is not in doubt, one way or another.

Saint Nicholas's Charity Leads Us to Those Chocolate Coins in Frustrating Wrappers

Coin you believe it? Image via Shutterstock

So from those legendary gold-giving deeds of Saint Nick (or should that be Saint Nik?) we get the modern tradition of handing out those little mesh bags filled with chocolate coins, the ones that sometimes inexplicably come with Euro denominations on the front, that are almost impossible to unwrap after a few glasses of port and inevitably split in half in the process, flecking your best Christmas shirt in tiny bits of chocolate. Cheers, Nicky boy.

Turkey is Nowhere to be Seen on Many Countries' Christmas Dinner Tables

Image via Shutterstock (edited)

While an overfed, big-breasted bird is seen as the meal centrepiece of choice by many Brits, with around 10 million being consumed in the UK alone last year according to British Turkey, other countries plump for far more interesting sounding fare for their traditional Christmas dinners.

In Austria, a popular option is pouring gingerbread-and-beer sauce over braised carp, while in coastal Norway it's also a fishy feast featuring cod, haddock and the delicacy lutefisk, which is a dried and salted whitefish; in-land regions of the fjord-ridden nation pig out on pork chops and sausages.

The Italians like to go slow with a four-hour feast starting with antipasti, before the obligatory pasta, then comes the roast meal, after which comes some salad, before two sweet puddings are taken on. After the operations to fix ruptured intestinal tracts, it's then time for the cheeseboard, some well-needed fruit (and also chocolates) which is all washed down with brandy.

In Poland, Crimbo grub is a similarly hearty set-up, where diners traditionally chow down on a spread of 12 non-meat dishes, including mushroom soup, sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), pierogi dumplings filled with cabbage, cabbage rolls (don't skimp on the cabbage, you guys), carp, piernik gingerbread cake, dried fruit compote and more.

The Germans tend to dine on game, usually wild boar and venison. In Ukraine the Christmas feast consists of huge pots of broth brimming with meat. Caribbean traditions over in Jamaica mean Christmas revellers are fed with curry goat, rice, gungo peas, chicken, and bit of oxtail too.

Iceland Gets Festive With a Weird Gang of Santas Called the Yule Lads

Why have just one cultural Crimbo icon when you can have thirteen? This is the situation that Icelandic children find themselves in, with tradition denoting that over the course of the Christmas period thirteen different strangely named Santa figures come down from the mountains one by one in the nights building up to the big day, to cause all sorts of mythical mischief.

Window Peeper taking a break from voyeur. Image via Shutterstock

As the story goes, the Yule Lads are the sons of Grýla The Child Eater, an evil troll woman who's on her third husband (it seems she is also a Man Eater) and each of the dozen-and-one offspring of Grýla have rather descriptive names that hint at their ne'er-do-well status.

There's sheep-molester Sheep Cote Clod; Gully Gawk, who hides in ditches waiting to steal milk from cowsheds; vertically challenged Stubby; Spoon Licker the underfed; Pot Scraper the pot.....scraper, always in search of leftovers; he who hides under beds waiting for done-with dishes, Bowl Licker; slammer of doors, Door Slammer; yogurt-loving Skyr Gobbler; Sausage Swiper the pork kleptomaniac; the nosey one who also has light fingers, Window Peeper; big-nosed exit-examiner, Door Sniffer; Meat Hook the animal flesh thief; and finally, Candle Stealer who nicks kids' sources of illumination (which were in the past made from animal fat, and thus edible).

In Texas There is a Tree Constructed From Antler Horns

Tree images via Flickr and wondersofbackroads blog

The horny wonder, seen in its gaudy grandeur in the picture above, is found over in the US, in a Texan town called Junction where hunting is one of the residents' most popular activities. The Deer Antler Christmas Tree, as it is affectionately and imaginatively called, sits in a small park between a church and a motel all year round and during the yearly festivities is topped with an electric star.

Czech Christmas Dinners are Never Odd

It is Czech custom that Christmas dinner is eaten by an even number of diners, otherwise it is viewed as bringing bad luck or even heralds death. In the case of there being an uneven number of table attendees, an extra plate is laid out to help balance the equation. Even if there is an even turn-out, another plate will be on hand, just in case an unexpected guest turns up, which would surely cause an odd number of people and another plate would have to be put out. (I'm feeling that these traditions may have been thought up by a canny crockery manufacturer in times gone by.)

This woman clearly has a death wish. Image from Shutterstock

Custom also defines that everyone has to finish all that they are served, while never sitting with backs to the door and everyone has to stand up from the table at the same time; anyone who leaves the table by themselves is said to be the next to die that year. Superstitious? Never!

Mistletoe Can Kill Cats and Dogs

Animals have a great habit of chewing things they come across, but if that 'something' happens to be Christmas mistletoe, it can cause anything from vomiting to an early death. It's all down to the kissing plant's berries, which contain polysaccharides, alkaloids, and lectins, all of which are toxic in large enough amounts to moggies and doggies.

Simon Cowell Has More Christmas Number Ones Than The Beatles

The Fab Four are recognised as having the most Christmas number ones after hitting the holiday top-spot three times, in 1963, 1965 and 1967 with I Want To Hold Your Hand, I Feel Fine and Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out respectively (the last one was a double A side, hence the two titles).

Simon Cowell via fansshare; hat via Shutterstock; background X Factor logo via Logopedia

But in the last decade Simon Cowell's X Factor puppets have become a practical shoe-in for being crowned Christmas singles-chart winners. Starting with Shayne Ward in 2005, with the insipid That's My Goal, we have been subjected to a further six X Factor-borne Christmas number-ones, from Leona Lewis (A Moment Like This, 2006), Leon Jackson (When You Believe, 2007), Alexandra Burke (Hallelujah, 2008), Matt Cardle (When We Collide, 2010), Sam Bailey (Skyscraper, 2013) and Ben Haenow (Something I Need, 2014).

Of course famously the 2009 top spot went to Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name Of, a highly un-festive (yet amazing) song that won the day after a huge viral campaign encouraged people to buy it, specifically to oust Simon Cowell's efforts (and by extension, Joe McElderry, that year's winner) from hogging the Yuletide limelight.

While I admit it is a little disingenuous to say that Simon Cowell has more number ones than anyone else, as he isn't up on stage doing the singing, the ideal candidate for believing that warped fact to be gospel is Simon Cowell.

Meanwhile, Band Aid's 1984 Charity Single is the Biggest UK Seller and Bing Wins Worldwide

The Official Charts put Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas Time, which was recorded to raise money and awareness for Ethiopian famine, at the top of list of the highest selling records in the UK. Globally that accolade goes to Bing Crosby's White Christmas, while in the UK that song is in sixth position, just behind the 2004 version of Do They Know It's Christmas Time by Band Aid 20.

Christmas is a Massive 'Elf and Safety Hazard

According the NHS, more than 80,000 people a year need hospital treatments for injuries sustained in field of Yuletide battle.

Hazards ahead. Image via Shutterstock

And really, as our nation's health service helps to illustrate, Christmas is undoubtedly potentially dangerous, a perfect storm of stress-ridden kitchens pumping out food beyond normal means, filled with hot cooking fat, sharp knives and boiling water; newfound objects cluttering stairs, navigated after a few snifters of sherry; scissors being used to cut open that god-awful impossible-to-prise-open plastic packaging or mini screwdrivers slipping while opening battery hatches on Barbie doll cars; needle-ridden trees; past-their-best fairy lights and overloaded plug socket decks; highly breakable and step-on-able baubles; flickering candles galore; and food poisoning from cooking a massive meal with the only practice being 12 months beforehand.

Add to that the general abundance of booze in everything from chocolate liqueurs to the Christmas pudding, or brandished in the hands of those understandably stressed-out chefs and it's a wonder there aren't more injuries. In short: be careful, revellers!

Christmas Island is Named Christmas Island Because of Christmas

Inform a four-year-old that Christmas Island exists and they will have their mind light up with a land of perennial present-giving and gaudy ornaments that never go away, but, according to the Australian territory's tourist board, it is actually a “pretty quiet” time of year, when many people head off to the mainland to see families or go snorkelling or hold barbecues, but the island's connections to Christmas are undeniable.

Image via Shutterstock

After arriving at the mass of land on the 25th of December in 1643, Captain William Mynors of the East India Shipping Company in a moment of clarity (or was it un-inspiration?) called what he saw before him Christmas Island, though he was unable to land and explore further at that time. It wasn't until 45 years later in 1688 that an English ship, the Cygnet under Captain Swan, revisited and the first recorded feet sunk into its sandy shores and ventured beyond; still, Mynor's festive title had stuck.

(Bonus trivia: The same nomenclature is true of Easter Island, which was given its title by Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer who stumbled upon the Pacific speck of land on April 5, 1722, the Christian-calendar date of Easter in that year. It's a shame the globe's atlas is complete because the world is totally missing a Halloween Island IMO).

One Man Has Over 30,000 Items of Christmas Tat Stashed in His House

Canadian eccentric Jean-Guy Laquerre is approaching eighty years old and the Quebec man is often featured in reports for his bonkers collection of Santa-related figurines, posters, trinkets and whatever other bits and bobs he could find featuring Father Christmas's image; he has been going strong on the mission since 1985.

Image via Reuters

He continues to break his own record year after year, and makes sure his whole collection is looking prim and proper for the four weeks following the 15th of December, a task that he admits is getting tiring in his senior years.

The Irish Splash Out the Most Cash at Christmas

According to the imaginatively named 2014 report by financial titans PricewaterhouseCoopers, Santanomics, residents of the Republic of Ireland are the most generous in monetary terms when it comes to spending cash at Christmas.

Christmas spendCharts via PwC Santanomics report; cash image via Shutterstock

The whole report is measured in US dollars and, by calculating the average amount of money spent per person over the Christmas period drawn from national statistics office and World Bank figures, the Irish topped the bill with an outlay of $1,184 per person in 2013. UK residents are second in line spending $1,065 while the Americans gets the bronze medal with $776.

Ireland falls off the top spot in regards to aggregate spending, though. When counting the total spend for Christmas presents and food and all the other excess that Xmas brings, the US perhaps unsurprisingly bests the rest; so, even though comparative per-person spending might not be as high as Ireland, the larger population alongside a generally affluent society bloat the figures way up, with the States being way out ahead with a total spend of $245 billion. The UK is in a relatively distant second place at $68 billion, followed by Germany on $42 billion, according to the PwC figures.

Ding Ding Dang is the Chinese Rendition of Jingle Bells

It's true to say that Christmas is not a traditional Chinese celebration, seeing as Christianity forms only around one per cent of the population's religion (roughly 100 million Christians to 1.3 billion citizens, still, that's a lot of people!) but in the bigger mainland cities along coastal regions, the westernised idea of Christmas has grown in popularity, despite it not being an official public holiday.

As such, many festive tropes like Christmas trees, excessive shopping and carol singing are practised in parts of the far-eastern country. Which is what leads to the existence of this charming translation of Jingle Bells, as seen in the video above, which joins other wonders of localisation like Women Zhu Ni Shengdan Kuaile (We Wish You a Merry Christmas) and Ping'an Ye (Silent Night).

Just a Single Snowflake Need Fall for the Day to Qualify as a White Christmas

That's right, just a single measly flake of snow must hit the ground in the 24 hours of the 25th of December for the day to be officially recognised as a White Christmas. The Met Office would traditionally only measure that it in a single location, London, but it says that since the event has become a more common gambling bet, locations have expanded to include Buckingham Palace, Aldergrove Airport in Belfast, Pittodrie (home of Aberdeen FC), Edinburgh Castle, Coronation Street in Manchester and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Of course, if one flake falls there is a high likelihood that more will descend to join it, but it rather flies in the face of stereotypical image of a White Christmas, like the ones Bing Crosby used to know.

By My Calculations, Blanketing the UK in Snow Would Cost Just Under £13 Billion

Cloud-seeding is a very real process is which chemical compounds (usually silver iodide, sometimes just table salt) are pumped into clouds via air flights, the results of which sees the cloud change formation, forcing precipitation such as rain or snow.

It is normally used for moistening dry arable land, such as is the case with many US states that invest lots of money into practice. But as an example of how it can be used for forcing snowfall, Beijing overdid its drought-ending efforts one year and accidentally blanketed the city in a layer of snow.

So if we wanted to cover all of the UK in snow using cloud seeding, how much would it cost? Well, using my GCSE maths and probably-very-wrong calculations, I have come up with the figure of £12,858,152,257.

The best things in life come free. Image via NASA

Show my working? Fine (anyone with a better idea can and certainly will feel free to correct me in the comments). So! The area of the UK is 243,610 km^2, which is 722,368,104.3338 acre-feet. Costs of cloud seeding per acre-foot varied wildly in my research, but in a low-cost scenario (George Osborne wouldn't allow any frivolities in this vital venture, so we'll skimp where we can) a median price came out at about $27, or £17.80. With that, we get 722,368,104.3338 x 17.80, and the just-shy-of-£13-billion price tag that I posited above. Seems legit, right?

I am sure that equation is full of holes and I'd love to see any better efforts, but in the mean time I'll get on with setting up one of those petitions for raising parliamentary debates, and by next year we will be a nation more in debt, but a pretty-at-Christmas one nonetheless.

Tim Berners-Lee Spent Christmas Day 1990 Surfing the Web

Not willing to settle down for a massive meal and some organised religious celebrations, inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee spent Christmas Day 1990 at the CERN laboratories in Geneva, finishing the initial set-up of the world's first web browser.

After a month of crafting an integrated editor that could create hypertext documents, one of the first things Berners-Lee and his colleague Robert Cailliau did was sort out an online CERN telephone directory, proving the practicality of the new format. If only they could foresee back then the cat meme utopia they would pave the way for.

The Word 'Xmas' Isn't Some Abomination of Modernity

Image via Fanpop

It would be easy to assume that 'Xmas' was an abbreviation borne from tabloid headline writing or the bastardisation of the English language that is text-speak, but in fact it represents the first letter of the Greek word 'Χριστός', which means 'Christ', and therefore maintains the religiousness of the word, despite appearances. And, if Futurama is to be believed, 'Xmas' is all Christmas will be known as by the time we reach the year 3000, as shown in the episode Xmas Story.

Eating Mince Pies is Not Illegal in England at Christmas

If you were to dial 999 on Christmas Day because nan can't keep her hands off the mince pies, you would be told to sod off quicker than you can say Cromwell, despite what lazy reports may tell you. But there is some truth to the pie-banning fact.

Oliver "Killjoy" Cromwell, the usual suspect in these matters was not alone in spearheading any Christmas bans: it was Long Parliament that in fact tried to impose legal measures on holy celebrations like Christmas in the mid-1600s, as a puritanical way of lessening the boozy and bawdy outrageousness (in their eyes) of the Twelve Days of Christmas. As the Law Commission asserts, mince pies were never illegal but were frowned upon as they were "seen as symbol of the immoral excesses of the festive season".

Mince pie image and prison bar image via Shutterstock

There was in fact the Christmas day of 1644 that coincided with a legally mandated day of fasting, which the Lords and Commons kept instated despite the likely misgivings of the population, so mince pies (which were made of beef and spices back then, not currants and sugar) would have technically been banned, along with many other foodstuffs. That was a few years before Cromwell was trying to get his acts into law, though.

So, rest assured that those all-butter mince pies from Morrisons are safe on your Crimbo dinner table.

The Most Expensive Christmas Card Ever Cost £20,000

If you thought that Paperchase's cards were dear, think again! Back in 2001, a greetings card illustrated and hand-coloured by Royal Academy artist John Calcott Horsley was hawked at auction in Devizes, Wiltshire, for more than £20,000, making it by far the most expensive ever sold at auction.

Image via Wikimedia

Why so much? Well, it is recognised as the first Christmas card ever made, and the honour of sending that historic item goes to a certain Sir Henry Cole of Bath, who whisked it off to his grandmother in 1843!


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