CLOSE
Original image

5 Questions on the Origins of Christmas

Original image

The traditions we associate with Christmas have evolved over the centuries. Here are answers to five questions about these traditions, from the date we choose to celebrate to the origin of Santa.

1. Why do we celebrate on December 25th?

The Bible makes no mention of Jesus being born on December 25th and, as more than one historian has pointed out, why would shepherds be tending to their flock in the middle of winter? So why is that the day we celebrate? Well, either Christian holidays miraculously fall on the same days as pagan ones or the Christians have been crafty in converting pagan populations to religion by placing important Christian holidays on the same days as pagan ones. And people had been celebrating on December 25th (and the surrounding weeks) for centuries by the time Jesus showed up.

The Winter Solstice, falling on or around December 21st, was and is celebrated around the world as the beginning of the end of winter. It is the shortest day and longest night and its passing signifies that spring is on the way. In Scandinavian countries, they celebrated the solstice with a holiday called Yule last from the 21st until January and burned a Yule log the whole time.

In Rome, Saturnalia—a celebration of Saturn, the God of agriculture—lasted the entire end of the year and was marked by mass intoxication (a tradition your uncle still upholds to this day). In the middle of this, the Romans celebrated the birth of another God, Mithra (a child God), whose holiday celebrated the children of Rome.

When the Christianity became the official religion of Rome, there was no Christmas. It was not until the 4th century that Pope Julius I declared the birth of Jesus to be a holiday and picked December 25th as the celebration day. By the middle ages, most people celebrated the holiday we know as Christmas.

2. How did Americans come to love the holiday?

The American Christmas is, like most American holidays, a mishmash of Old World customs mixed with American inventions. While Christmas was celebrated in America from the time of the Jamestown settlement, our modern idea of the holiday didn't take root until the 19th century. The History Channel credits Washington Irving with getting the ball rolling. In 1819 he published The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., an account of a Christmas celebration in which a rich family invites poor folk into their house to celebrate the holiday.

The problem (if you're so inclined to call it such) was that many of the activities described in Irving's work, such as crowning a Lord of Misrule, were entirely fictional. Nonetheless, Irving began to steer Christmas celebrations away from drunken debauchery and towards wholesome, charitable fun. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Christmas gained popularity and Americans adopted old customs or invented new ones, such as Christmas tress, greeting cards, giving gifts and eating a whole roasted pig (or is that just my family?).

3. Who popularized Christmas trees?

ChristmasTree.jpgSince time immortal, humans have been fascinated with the color green and plants that stay green through winter. Many ancient societies—from Romans to Vikings—would decorate their homes and temples with evergreens in the winter as a symbol of the returning growing season.

But the Christmas tree didn't get going until some intrepid German dragged home and decorated a tree in the 16th century. Legend has it that Martin Luther himself added lighted candles to his family's tree, starting the trend (and leading to countless fires through the years). In America, the Christmas tree didn't catch on until 1846 when the British royals, Queen Victoria and the German Prince Albert, were shown with a Christmas tree in a newspaper. Fashionable people in America mimicked the Royals and the tree thing spread outside of German enclaves in America. Ornaments, courtesy of Germany, and electric lights, courtesy of Thomas Edison's assistants, were added over the years and we haven't changed much since.

4. What's the deal with Santa Claus?

The jolly, red-suited man who sneaks into your home every year to leave you gifts hasn't always been so jolly. The real Saint Nick was a Turkish monk who lived in the 3rd century. He was known for being charitable and selfless, eventually becoming the patron saint of sailors and children. According to legend, he was a rich man thanks to an inheritance from his parents, but he gave it all away in the form of gifts to the less-fortunate. He eventually became the most popular saint in Europe and, through his alter ego, Santa Claus, remains so to this day. But how did a long-dead Turkish monk become a big, fat, reindeer-riding pole dweller?

The Dutch got the ball rolling be celebrating the saint—called Sinter Klaas—in New York in the late-18th century. Our old friend, Washington Irving, included the legend of Saint Nick in his seminal History of New-York as well, but at the turn of the 18th century, Saint Nick was still a rather obscure figure in America.

On December 23, 1823, though, a man named Clement Clarke Moore published a poem he had written for his daughters called "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," better known now as "T'was the Night Before Christmas." Nobody knows how much of the poem Moore invented, but we do know that it was the spark that eventually lit the Santa fire (just hopefully not in the same fireplace he slips down on Christmas Eve). Many of the things we associate with Santa—a sleigh, reindeer, Christmas Eve visits—came from Moore's poem.

coke-santa.jpgFrom 1863-1886, Thomas Nast's illustrations of Santa Claus appeared in Harper's Weekly—including a scene with Santa giving gifts to Union soldiers. Not much has changed since the second half of the 19th century: Santa still gets pulled in a sleigh by flying reindeer, he still wears the big red suit and he still sneaks down chimneys to drop off presents. Contrary to popular belief, the Coca-Cola company did not invent the modern Santa. They did, however, learn how to use his image to get parents to buy soda during winter.

5. Who invented Rudolph?

Santa did get one more friend in 1939. Robert May, a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store chain, wrote a little story about a 9th reindeer with a disturbing red nose for a booklet to give customers during the holiday season. Ten years later, May's brother would put the story to music, writing the lyrics and melody.

Streeter Seidell is the front page editor of CollegeHumor.com and a mental_floss contributor.

Original image
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Original image
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
Original image
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
Original image
Getty Images

Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios