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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

DreamWorks Classics

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

United Feature Syndicate

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

Warner Bros. Television

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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9 Common Misperceptions About Religious Observances
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP/Getty Images

Religion can be confusing. Not only do many religions have similar philosophies and holidays, for many of the world's most widely practiced religions, the details for observing certain holidays or rites can differ based on location, denomination, or modernization. And for those who are less familiar with a particular religion, the details can be easy to overlook. From Ramadan to Advent to Bathing the Buddha, we break down nine common misconceptions surrounding popular religious observances.

1. WHAT'S WRONG: RAMADAN IS A HOLIDAY.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

"In American thinking, we think of [Ramadan] as a holiday because that's the way we associate important religious dates as holidays," Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told NPR. "It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday."

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar, which explains why the date moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar). It's significant because the Qur'an was first revealed, and the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, during this time.

Lailat al Qadr is the actual night of the revelation of the Qur'an, and praying on that night is said to be "better than a thousand months." But no one knows what night it actually was, only that it was probably in the last 10 days of the month. As such, the last 10 days of Ramadan are generally treated as special days.

The main holiday associated with Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr (or Eid ul-Fitr), which marks the end of the month and the end of fasting.

2. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALL ABOUT NOT EATING.

A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Turkey.
A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Diyabakir, Turkey
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In the West, much of the attention is focused on how, for the month of Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. But that's only part of the story—Muslims are also supposed to abstain from sex, fighting, smoking, bad thoughts, and sometimes even TV during the time of the fast. According to Nasr, "It's a period of spiritual reflection," of which not eating is a part.

But not all Muslims abstain from eating during Ramadan. Some Ismaili Muslims abstain from eating on only a handful of days throughout the year, and during Ramadan focus instead on those other forms of fasting.

3. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALWAYS FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET.

The suun setting over mountains.
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The majority of the time, this is true. But for Muslim communities in the far north, fasting from sunrise to sunset can be a problem—in the summer, the sun might not set for days or weeks, and in the winter the sun may never rise. Some tough it out, while others follow the time of the nearest major city, nearest Muslim country, or Mecca.

4. WHAT'S WRONG: ADVENT STARTS ON DECEMBER 1.

A child pulls a drawer out of an advent calendar.
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Virtually all the Advent calendars available in the market start on December 1, but this is only rarely correct. Advent actually starts on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30. It's believe that the misconception can be traced back to a German man named Gerhard Lang. Lang, inspired by the Advent calendars his mother made him as a boy, began mass producing the calendars in the early 20th century; he eventually decided to standardize the calendar as starting at December 1.

5. WHAT'S WRONG: LENT IS THE 40 DAYS BETWEEN ASH WEDNESDAY AND EASTER.

A palm cross in a dish of ashes on top of a green palm leaf.
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According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "Strictly speaking, Lent ends with the beginning of the Triduum on Holy Thursday. The Ordo [the official book that details such issues] notes: 'Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive on Holy Thursday.'" [PDF]

The change to Holy Thursday only dates to the 1960s and is only true for Roman Catholics (who point out that a distinction is made between liturgical Lent and the Lenten fast), but even among other Western churches the definition of Lent being the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter isn't quite right. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not including Easter, as traditionally Lent ended on Easter Saturday). The other six days are on Sundays, when fasting is forbidden.

6. WHAT'S WRONG: THE HAJJ IS THE WORLD'S LARGEST RELIGIOUS GATHERING.

The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
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Every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, 2 to 3 million Muslims gather for the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite that number, it is not the largest religious gathering in the world. Kumbh Mela brings Hindus together every three years at one of four alternating sites, with the main Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad; In 2013, it counted approximately 120 million people. According to the BBC, the story of Kumbh Mela is that gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar and a few drops fell on each of the four cities that now host the festival, and during the festival the water becomes the nectar.

7. WHAT'S WRONG: BATHING THE BUDDHA IS A UNIVERSAL CELEBRATION.

An Indonesian Buddhist bathes the Buddha statue during a Vesak ceremony in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Robertus Pudyanto, Getty Images

One of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the West is Vesak (or Wesak), and one of the most well-known components of the day is Bathing the Buddha, where water gets poured over the Buddha to purify the mind.

But in reality the day is more complex than that. Vesak is a day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhists view these three events as happening at three separate times, with only the Buddha's birthday occurring the same time as Vesak. In modern Western cities that have multiple Buddhist groups, the Mahayana tradition of Bathing the Buddha often gets combined with the Theravada celebration of Vesak, so much so that one Theravada Buddhist writing for the Huffington Post noted that he had never even heard of the Bathing the Buddha tradition as part of Vesak before college.

8. WHAT'S WRONG: RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES ARE ALWAYS SPECIFIC TO THE RELIGION.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

While most of the time a religious holiday is exclusive to its religion, there are certain festivities that span across religions. The Muslim day of Ashura originated when Mohammed arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting in honor of Moses. Mohammed then ordered a fast as well. Today, scholars debate whether the Jews of Medina were celebrating Passover or Yom Kippur, but Ashura was originally based on a Jewish holy day.

9. WHAT'S WRONG: ALL MEMBERS OF A RELIGION CELEBRATE THE SAME HOLIDAYS.

Four burning candles for Diwali.
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Just as some holidays can spread across multiple religions, some holidays are not universally followed within the religion. Quakers, which are a denomination of Protestant Christians, have traditionally not celebrated Christmas or Easter because they consider every day a holy day. Traditionally, the people of Kerala in the south of India don't view Diwali as a major celebration, for reasons that are debated. And on the flip side, groups within a religion often have their own holidays, such as the Old Believers (a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who split from the main branch) who celebrate holidays such as the Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas, commemorating the movement of the relics from Turkey to Italy.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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