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18 Facts About Your Favorite Christmas TV Specials

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Here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits about a handful of holiday small-screen favorites.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

1. Which came first, the TV special or the song? Johnny Marks wrote the song in 1949. He was the brother-in-law of Robert L. May, the Montgomery Ward copywriter who’d created the story of the red-nosed reindeer for a department store coloring book. Marks had a good ear for a catchy holiday tune and was responsible for many of the Christmas classics we still hear today, including “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nevertheless, he was reluctant at first to allow his tune to be the subject of a TV special – he thought that over-exposure might equal a decrease in record sales. Luckily he lived just down the street from Arthur Rankin, of Rankin/Bass fame, who eventually managed to change Marks’ mind.

2. Mario Muller, the screenwriter for the TV special, stated in an interview that the reason his script deviated so much from the original story is that he was unable to find a copy of May’s book at the time. Several of the characters, including Hermey the wannabe dentist, were named after Muller’s real-life friends.

3. The first few drafts of the screenplay did not include the character of Sam the Snowman. In fact, the songs sung by Sam in the final version were originally performed by Yukon Cornelius. But General Electric felt that the production needed a “name” in order to sell it to a network, and Burl Ives was brought on board.

Frosty the Snowman

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4. The song came first in this instance, too; in fact the tune was written by Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins in 1950 specifically as a means of capitalizing on the success of Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record wasn’t as huge as “Rudolph” sales-wise, but Frosty’s story was nevertheless perpetuated via Golden Books and Dell Comics.

5. Despite a long career in radio and film, legendary comedian Jimmy Durante’s memory has been primarily kept alive all these years thanks to his role as the narrator in this Christmas special. Durante loved children, and is famous for turning down a performance fee at the Eagles International Convention in 1961. When asked by the organizers “What can we do, then?” Durante replied in his trademark Brooklynese: “Help da kids.”

6. First aired in 1969, Frosty was the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special to utilize traditional animation (versus the stop-motion method used in their other projects). Paul Coker, Jr., a long-time MAD magazine illustrator, provided both the main character and background drawings.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

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7. Yet again, the song came first. In this case, way first: J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie wrote it in 1932, at a time when sheet music outsold records. The song only received national exposure in the first place because Eddie Cantor, Coots’ employer at the time, reluctantly sang it (at the urging of his wife) on his radio show in late November 1934. Despite the music publishers’ dire warning that songs aimed at children were doomed to fail, Cantor’s performance sent the sheet music for the song flying off retailers’ shelves and inspired countless other popular artists to record it.

8. How does a 71-year-old hoofer keep his name in the spotlight many years after MGM had ceased producing big-budget musicals and his aging bones have begun to betray him? Voiceover work! That's how Rankin/Bass was able to secure Fred Astaire for the role of the mailman/narrator for their 1970 special. R/B’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been airing annually since 1964, so Astaire agreed to this project, rightly assuming that it had “legs.” Rankin/Bass also benefited because even older adults with no kids at home tuned in to see and hear the Fred Astaire they remembered so fondly.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

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9. In 1963, TV producer Lee Mendelson filmed a documentary about Charles Schulz and the daily process involved in creating his Peanuts comic strip. The Peanuts documentary never sold, but Coca-Cola execs happened to see it and asked Mendelson if he’d be interested in doing an animated Charlie Brown Christmas special. Within a few days, Mendelson and Schulz had the outline of a script ready, with notes like “sad Christmas tree,” “school play,” and “ice skating” scribbled in the margins.

10. When it came to actually producing the special, Charlie Brown was truly a problem child. Unlike most of the other characters, Charlie Brown’s head was completely round, which made it difficult for the animators to indicate movement from side to side. Snoopy, on the other hand, was the easiest character to manipulate, which is why they had fun making him do everything from dancing the jitterbug to impersonating a vulture.

11. When CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas, they were uneasy, to say the least. There was not enough action, it moved too slow, the voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors, there was no laugh track, etc. Most upsetting was the fact that Linus read from the Gospel of Luke in one scene. (“You can’t read from the Bible on network television!”) Nevertheless, CBS had made a commitment to their sponsor, so they aired the special as scheduled on December 9, 1965. And, as it turned out, A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

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12. Boris Karloff, best known as a horror film actor thanks to his starring roles in movies such as Frankenstein, won a Grammy Award in 1967 (in the spoken word category) for his work as the narrator/Grinch when How the Grinch Stole Christmas was released as an LP.

13. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, whose basso profundo voice is familiar to most of the world as that of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrrrrreat!!”)

14. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ original 1957 book was black and white with touches of pink, like every other illustration. It was director Chuck Jones (who’d produced and directed countless Warner Brothers cartoons starring Bugs Bunny and his pals) who decided that the Grinch should be green.

15. Just prior to the Grinch’s first airing, Variety snarked at the $315,000 budget (extravagant by 1966 standards) for a children’s cartoon. "The Grinch - It Not Only Stole Christmas But Picked CBS' Pocket” was the headline of doom.

Bowie and Bing

16. It’s not an official stand-alone Christmas special, but this 1977 clip manages to get aired every holiday season, mainly due to the odd juxtaposition of the participants: old-school crooner Bing Crosby (age 73 at the time) and contemporary artist (considered somewhat outrageous by those who still remembered Ziggy Stardust) David Bowie. Crosby was in the midst of a UK tour at the time, and the theme of the show was “Christmas in England.”

17. Bowie’s management had agreed to have him appear on the special because A) it was filmed at Elstree Studios, not far from Bowie’s home, and B) his video for “Heroes” would be a part of the show (complete with an introduction by Der Bingle himself).

18. At the last minute, however, Bowie read the script and objected to singing “Little Drummer Boy,” stating “I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?” Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan (the show’s producers and songwriters in their own right) adjourned to the studio’s basement and in less than 90 minutes came up with the “Peace on Earth” bit that Bowie agreed to interweave with Crosby’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”

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Autumn Equinox 2017: Today Is the First Day of Fall
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On September 22, at 4:02 p.m. ET, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

An autumn equinox celebration at the Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania.
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The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Druids on London's Primrose Hill marking the autumn equinox.
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Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

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11 Sweet Facts About Rosh Hashanah
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The first Rosh Hashanah supposedly occurred in the Garden of Eden. But what does this important Jewish holiday involve today?

1. IT LITERALLY TRANSLATES AS "HEAD OF THE YEAR."

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, can fall any time between the fifth of September and the fifth of October on the Gregorian Calendar. On the Jewish calendar, it is the first day of the month of Tishrei and marks the start of the High Holy Days. These days are also known as the days of awe, ushering in the final phase of atonement. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world.

2. FOR THE MONTH BEFORE, JEWS ASK FOR FORGIVENESS FROM FRIENDS AND FAMILY.

In order to have a clean slate going into the New Year, Jews ask for forgiveness from those close to them. The idea here is that God cannot forgive transgressions against people until those wronged have forgiven.

3. TRADITIONALLY, ROSH HASHANAH HAPPENS OVER TWO DAYS.

These days are combined into the yoma arichta, or "long day." At sunset on the first evening, candles are lit by the lady of the house. Then blessings are recited: a traditional holiday blessing over the candles, followed by the shehecheyanu, a thanksgiving prayer for special occasions. Both evenings also feature a festive meal.

4. UNLIKE DECEMBER 31, THE JEWISH NEW YEAR IS A TIME OF SERIOUS REFLECTION AND REPENTANCE.

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Even Jews who go to synagogue at no other time of year will often go on the high holidays, which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Religious poems called piyyutim are recited and a special high holy day prayer book called the machzor is used. The service is often longer than Sabbath services, and centers around the theme of God’s sovereignty, remembrance, and blasts of the shofar (see below).

5. DESPITE NOT BEING A HUGE PARTY, JEWS ARE EXPECTED TO ENJOY THE YOM TOV, OR HOLIDAY.

People often get fresh haircuts and new clothes in order to celebrate. The tradition is to wear white clothing as a sign of purity and renewal. Some avoid wearing red, since it's the color of blood.

6. ACCORDING TO THE TALMUD, ON ROSH HASHANAH, GOD INSCRIBES EVERYONE'S NAMES INTO ONE OF THREE BOOKS.

The metaphorical understanding is that good people go into the Book of Life, and evil ones into the Book of Death; those who are in the middle are put in an intermediate one and have judgment put off until Yom Kippur. Since virtually no one is all good or all evil, you're supposed to assume you fall somewhere in the middle, and in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year, it is important to do everything possible to atone before Yom Kippur.

7. THE SOUNDING OF THE SHOFAR IS THE MOST ICONIC IMAGE OF THIS HOLIDAY.

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The shofar is a ram’s horn that is curved and bent. It is hollowed out and blown during religious ceremonies to make three different sounds. Hearing it is meant to call you to repent.

8. WHILE SOME JEWISH HOLIDAYS INVOLVE FASTING, ROSH HASHANAH INVOLVES A FEAST.

It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to represent having a sweet year ahead. A round challah bread symbolizes the cycle of the year (another interpretation is that it represents a crown and thus God’s sovereignty). Sometimes a fish, or just its head, is included, possibly to represent that as fish cannot survive without water, Jews cannot survive without the Torah. Pomegranates contain many seeds, which have long been associated with the commandments that Jews follow, so by eating them they remind themselves to be good in the coming year. Other common foods include dates, leeks, gourds, and black-eyed peas, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud as foods to eat on New Year’s.

9. SOME BRANCHES OF JUDAISM PARTICIPATE IN THE RITUAL OF TASHLIKH, OR "CASTING OFF."

The ritual involves standing near water, like a river, and reciting prayers. Then participants symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs or stones into the water. This is supposedly derived from the Biblical passage “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), although most Jewish sources trace it back to 15th century Germany. In New York City, large groups gather on the Brooklyn Bridge, while in Israel—where there is much less open water—people might use something as small as a fish pond.

10. THERE ARE VARIOUS TRADITIONAL GREETINGS FOR ROSH HASHANAH.

L'Shana Tova Tea-ka-tayvu is Hebrew for “May you be inscribed for a good year,” referring to that person’s name being put in the Book of Life. This is often shortened to Shana Tova, which just means “Good Year.” This isn’t to be confused with wishing each other a “Happy New Year.” Happy implies a level of superficiality, while the Jewish wish for a good year hopes the person will achieve their purpose.

11. THE HAVDALAH PRAYER IS PERFORMED AS NIGHT FALLS ON THE SECOND AND LAST DAY.

It involves saying blessings over a full cup of kosher wine or grape juice, although other drinks can be used in a pinch. After this, Rosh Hashanah is over.

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