Christmas crackers

Merry Christmas to everyone who has dropped by Vaguely Interesting in 2012! I thought it would be appropriate to do at least one Christmas themed post, and decided on a miscellany of facts and myth busting about this fascinating holiday. So, if you’ve just got a new tablet or laptop and want a festive read, you’ve come to the right place!

No one is more associated with Christmas than jolly, red coated, white bearded Father Christmas. Father Christmas even manages to displace Jesus for many as the central character in the western world’s most important holiday.

He is known around the world by a range of names, including France (Père Noël), Spain and Hispanic Latin America (Papá Noel), Russia (Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost), Brazil (Papai Noel), Portugal (Pai Natal), Italy (Babbo Natale), Armenia (Kaghand Papik), India (Christmas Father), Romania (Moş Crăciun) and Turkey (Noel Baba).

And Santa Claus, right? But are the two characters the same? Interchangeable names for the gift distributing, sleigh riding super star? Not necessarily, although the two have become indistinguishable in many modern cultures. Santa Claus derives from the Germanic and Dutch traditions of good Saint Nicholas, or Saint Nicholas of Myra.

Margaret Baker succinctly describes how Norse mythology forms the base for much of modern Christmas traditions: “The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. […] Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”

But wasn’t the modern image of Father Christmas or Santa a marketing ploy by the Coca-Cola Company? Is it true that they gave Santa his familiar red and white garb to match their corporate colours? Coke’s festive adverts certainly helped establish the iconic depiction of a fat, jolly and whiskered red coated Santa.

But Snopes, the excellent online repository of urban myths, conclusively demonstrates that Santa’s image was well settled by the 1920s. This was well before the illustrator Haddon Sundblom drew the first Coca-Cola advert featuring Santa in 1931.

Here are some of my favourite little Christmas snippets:

  • The word ‘Noël’ is widely used in the Anglosphere, and derives from the French word for Christmas. Many etymologists claim that Noël is a contraction of the French termles bonnes nouvelles”, or the Good News.
  • Xmas is not a new or irreligious shorthand for Christmas – the letter X is a Greek abbreviation for Christ and is frequently depicted in some of the earliest Christian art. It is first recorded in written English in 1551, but use of this abbreviation for khristos dates back to Anglo Saxon records.
  • Keeping Christmas in Britain does not come cheap – in 2008 people in the UK consumed approximately 10 million turkeys, 25 million Christmas puddings, 250 million pints of beer and 35 million bottles of wine.
  • 7 million British children leave mince pies and a drink for Santa on Christmas Eve.
  • The UK spends £20bn on Christmas with £1.6bn going on food and drink.

And, last but my definite favourite, is an Icelandic tradition at Christmas. There are 13 ‘Santas’ in Iceland, each leaving a gift for children. In Icelandic they are known as jólasveinarnir, or the Yule Lads. They come down from the mountain one by one, starting on December 12 and originally were mischievous, even malevolent pranksters who would harass the population. It is worth reading the list of their Icelandic names, English translations and descriptions of their modus operandi.

With names like Þvörusleikir (Spoon-licker), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-swiper) and Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), the jólasveinarnir each have a novel way of stealing food or causing mischief. Fortunately, nowadays they bring gifts for children.

If all of this isn’t enough, the Daily Mirror has 50 more ‘facts’ about Christmas that Yule love [sic]. I haven’t been able to fact check these!