More Not-So-Famous Christmas Firsts

We featured a few holiday firsts last year, and have since dug up a few more to further clutter your mind in between shopping trips.

First Rockefeller Center Tree

In New York City, the holiday season officially kicks off each year with the ceremonial lighting of a towering Norway spruce in Rockefeller Plaza. Decked out with some 30,000 lights, thousands of folks line up in the cold to watch the illumination live, while millions more worldwide witness it on TV and via the Internet. The very first Christmas tree erected in that spot was not as ornamental but was probably much more meaningful.

Back in 1929, the stock market crashed and America was launched into the Great Depression. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. owned a $91 million piece of property in Midtown Manhattan that he decided to develop, despite the economy and glut of vacant properties in New York. Ground was broken that year and construction began on a series of buildings that would include Radio City Music Hall and the RCA building. On December 24, 1931, with 64% of New York-area construction workers jobless, those who were employed on the Rockefeller project were so thankful to be working that they placed a twenty-foot balsam fir tree in the muddy building site. They decorated it with paper garlands and tin cans, and later that day lined up in front of it to receive their paychecks.

First Video Yule Log

The “Yule Log” was the brainchild of WPIX-New York station manager Fred Thrower. Hoping to give apartment-dwelling Gothamites the aura of an old-fashioned country Christmas, he hit on the idea of filming a cheerfully burning fireplace and broadcasting it. The original Yule log was filmed at Gracie Mansion, home of Governor John Lindsay at the time. The crew decided the fireplace looked better without the protective screen in front, so they removed it. Unfortunately, although they captured the desired film footage, they also caused fire damage to an imported rug. The 17-second film was looped and played for two hours every Christmas morning from 1966 until 1989, with a selection of traditional carols played in the background.

Despite impressive ratings — the log consistently won its timeslot in the overnight Nielsens — it was retired in 1989, and was only recently resurrected thanks to a flurry of protests and petitions from virtual fireplace fans. The original footage deteriorated after a time, and when a new film was required, Gracie Mansion officials, remembering their charred carpet, invited the crew to look elsewhere for a suitable fireplace.

First Beverage Company to Use Santa as a Shill

Coca-Cola execs know that their company was not the first to use Kris Kringle to hawk their wares, but they don’t go out of their way to correct that long-circulated rumor. That particular honor belonged to White Rock Beverages. In fact, the White Rock folks were so forward-thinking in their promotion that their 1915 ad showed St. Nick delivering the company’s mineral water via horseless, er, reindeerless carriage, still something of a newfangled invention at the time.

First Salvation Army Red Kettle

In 1891 a San Francisco-based Salvation Army captain named James McFee made a personal pledge to provide a Christmas dinner to 1,000 of the area’s most destitute residents. His only problem was funding the effort. McFee was a British immigrant and had served in the Royal Navy as a youth. He recalled coming into port in Liverpool and seeing a large iron kettle at Stage Landing marked “Simpson’s Pot.” The kettle had been strategically placed to collect spare change from seafaring men who, as a rule, had more money than the average citizen and were often feeling benevolent when first arriving in port after months at sea. The coins collected in Simpson’s Pot were used to provide very basic foodstuffs to Liverpool’s poorest citizens. Capt. McFee placed a similar kettle at the Oakland ferry landing, and commuters threw in the odd penny or two which, bit by bit, quickly added up to some serious scratch. McFee was not only able to fulfill his personal goal, he also launched an international tradition that still endures today “to ensure that no family goes without food, no child is without presents under the tree and that Christmas is a time of hope and healing.”

First Hallmark Keepsake Ornament

Store-bought Christmas tree ornaments first became popular in the U.S. when F.W. Woolworth started selling imported German ornaments in his chain of five-and-dime stores in 1880. Ten years later, Woolworth was selling $25 million worth of ornaments during the holiday season. Germany remained the major supplier of elaborate ornaments featuring spun-glass angels and blown-glass flower baskets until 1925. Japan and Czechoslovakia entered the fray that year, and thanks to the competition the decorations became more elaborate and the prices comparatively lower. The U.S. didn’t get actively involved in Christmas tree décor business until 1939, when Corning engineers found that with a few tweaks they could use a machine designed to make light bulbs to produce 2,000 ornaments per minute. Nevertheless, it took Hallmark 34 years to capitalize on the collectible aspect of Christmas tree ornaments. The company launched its first set of Keepsake Ornaments in 1973, with six glass ball and 12 yarn-figure decorations.


job secrets
10 Secrets of Hotel Room Service

Guests visiting New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


A seafood dinner is presented on a plate

That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it's not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


Two coffee cups sit on a hotel bed

No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


A hotel guest pours milk into a bowl of cereal

Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It's something we dealt with numerous times.” While it's likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


A hotel room service tray sits in a hallway

That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


A tip is placed near a hotel check

People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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