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31 Things You Didn't Know about Holiday Songs

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1. Hi, I'm Mike, this is mental_floss on YouTube, and did you know that in the '50s the Catholic church condemned the song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?" So the record label flew the 13 year old Singer, Jimmy Boyd, out to Boston to meet with the archdiocese. Afterwards, they determined that the song was okay after all.

And that is the first of many facts about holiday songs that I'm gonna share with you today. Sorry, it's gonna get pretty Christmas-y up in here, but don't worry, we'll be back to our secular ways soon enough.

2. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," "A Holly Jolly Christmas," and "Run, Rudolph, Run" were all written by the same man, Johnny Marks, who was Jewish.

3. "The Little Drummer Boy" was originally known as "The Carol of the Drums." The von Trapp singers are credited with popularizing the song—yes, those von Trapps.

4. "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," from The Nutcracker, was written in 1891 for the celesta, an instrument that was invented only five years earlier. Oh hi Nutcracker! This is a great outfit. Where do you shop?

5. In 1906, "O Holy Night" became the second song to ever be broadcast on radio.

6. The singer of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" might sound old, but that is Brenda Lee—who was 13 years old at the time.

7. The first Christmas song to mention Santa Clause was "Up on the House Top" in 1864. These guys are slightly younger than that.

8. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" was written by two people with the most Christmas-y sounding names of all time: Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne. It is also, as it turns out, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. So next time you listen to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" just keep that in the back of your mind.

9. "Joy to the World" was originally a song about Christ's resurrection and his second coming on Easter, not his birth.

10. And the popular New Year song, "Auld Lang Syne," was never supposed to be associated with the holiday at all. One live band in New York coincidentally played it just after midnight on the radio, then it became a tradition. Not long after it also became a tradition to turn to someone next to you at the New Year's party and say, "What does 'Auld Lang Syne' mean anyway, I don't even know."

11. The song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions that there will be scary ghost stories, which doesn't seem Christmas-y—but in fact it was a holiday tradition that started in Victorian England and has since died out. Spending all of that uninterrupted time with your family is scary enough so there's no need for ghost stories. Just kidding, Mom and Dad, very excited to come home for Christmas.

12. Thurl Arthur Ravenscroft sang "You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch." He was also the voice of Tony the Tiger for 50 years. Not going to make a grrr-eat joke.

13. During World War I, there was a Christmas Truce, in which the French, English, and German troops sang "Silent Night."

14. On the other hand, the BBC would not play the song "I'll Be Home for Christmas" during World War II because they didn't want to lower the morale of their troops.

15. Songwriter Meredith Wilson wrote "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" in addition to the University of Iowa fight song and The Music Man. That guy had range.

16.The group recording of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" brought a feud between Boy George and George Michael to popular consciousness. Of George Michael's recording, Boy George said, "God, he sounded camp." But then, he is.

17. George Michael actually wrote the Wham song "Last Christmas." He also got sued for it because of its resemblance to the Barry Manilow song "Can't Smile Without You." It was settled out of court.

18. Irving Berlin, who wrote "White Christmas," hated Elvis's cover of his song. In the '50s, he started a campaign to ban Presley's version of the song from the radio, a process that proved akin to banning snow from falling.

19. And speaking of which, "Let It Snow" was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne during a 1945 heat wave in California.

20. Another song that was written in the heat: "The Christmas Song," also known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." Apparently songwriter Bob Wells was overheating, so he wrote a list of things that reminded him of cold weather. Chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, yuletide carols, et cetera. And then, it became the star of a song.

21. The residents of Armonk, New York believe that the song "Frosty the Snowman" was written about their town. They even hold an annual parade in honor of it.

22. "We Three Kings" was originally written in 1857 for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. I imagine that's a little bit different than the one that you would find in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

23. The original Yiddish version of "I Have a Little Dreidel," the dreidel is made out of bley, which means lead. It was translated to clay.

24. "Deck the Halls" started as a dance tune, the lyric "follow me in a merry measure" means "join me in dance."

25 "Silver Bells" was originally called "Tinkle Bells." Then the song writer Ray Evans told his wife about it, who responded "Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle is?"

26. There are three, count them, three separate music videos for the Mariah Carey song "All I Want for Christmas is You," and for some reason, I'm not surprised.

27. When "Winter Wonderland" was written in the '30s, some people were offended by the bit about Parson Brown marrying people on a whim. The line was replaced with "In the meadow we can build a snowman, and pretend that he's a circus clown."

28. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" was originally sung by Elmo Shropshire, a veterinarian, which I guess means that there's some kind of professional expertise supporting the described results of when grandmas and reindeers collide.

29. Paul McCartney wrote, sang, and played every instrument for "Wonderful Christmastime." He still earns between $400,000 and $600,000 every year in royalties for the song.

30. If you really received all of the gifts from "The 12 Days of Christmas," there would be 364 presents total. Someone did the math in 2013, and determined that it would cost around $114,651.18.

31. Finally, I return to the salon to tell you that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was written for the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St. Louis, originally it contained lines like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more," but Garland insisted that the songwriter change them, because she was supposed to sing it to a 7 year old and didn't want to seem like, I quote, "A monster."

Thanks for watching mental_floss on YouTube, which is made with the help of these nice people. My name is Mike Renetta, if you like my face, you can find more of it on YouTube at PBS Idea Channel, and if you like my voice, you can find it on my podcast, Reasonably Sound, links to those things in the Dooblydoo, and hey, DFTBA, and happy holidays!

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Warner Home Video
25 Things to Look for While Watching the 24-Hour A Christmas Story Marathon
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Warner Home Video

You’ve probably seen A Christmas Story enough times that you never really need to watch it again. But watch it you will. And enjoy it, too. Even though you know every twist and turn it will take for our young hero Ralphie to finally get his hands on his much-desired Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. (An item he repeats 28 times throughout the film’s 94-minute running time; you could make an eggnog drinking game out of that.) 

This Christmas, when you inevitably tune into catch at least one airing of Bob Clark’s holiday classic during TBS’ 24-hour marathon, we’ve got a way for you to watch A Christmas Story in a whole new light: by keeping your eyes—and ears—peeled for these 25 blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em gaffes, anachronisms, and other fun facts that make watching the classic film an entirely new experience. 

1. RALPHIE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL “CHRISTMAS.”

At least it doesn’t appear that way when he gets his Christmas theme—or shall we call it a Chistmas theme—back from Mrs. Shields, who also didn’t notice that the “R” is missing from the word.

2. JEAN SHEPHERD MAKES AN ON-SCREEN APPEARANCE.

If the voice of the man who brusquely informs Ralphie and Randy that the line to sit on Santa’s lap begins about two miles further back than they had anticipated sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the voice of the narrator, a.k.a. Adult Ralphie, who also happens to be Jean Shepherd, the man upon whose short stories the film itself is based. The woman behind Shepherd is his wife, Leigh Brown.

3. BOB CLARK JOINS IN THE CAMEO FUN.

Not to be outdone, director Bob Clark pops up in front of the camera, too, as Ralphie’s neighbor, Swede. He’s the guy who seems awfully curious about how Ralphie’s dad managed to snag himself a leg lamp. When The Old Man Parker informs him that it’s a Major Award, Swede responds: “Shucks, I wouldn’t know that. It looks like a lamp."

4. RALPHIE’S DAD IS NEVER GIVEN A NAME.

Over the years, a gaggle of sharp-eared A Christmas Story fans have pointed out that in Bob Clark’s scene, Ralphie’s dad is given a name: Hal. This is because they believed that in the brief exchange between the two neighbors, Swede asks of the leg lamp, “Damn Hal, you say you won it?” But a quick confer with the film’s original screenplay confirms that Swede’s actual query is, “Damn, hell, you say you won it?”

5. SPEAKING OF THE LEG LAMP…

The continuity folks must have been taking a coffee break during the unveiling of the leg lamp. Watch closely as the amount of packing debris covering The Old Man’s back and head changes from shot to shot. In one shot, his back is covered in the stuff; cut back and there’s nothing there.

6. IS THE LEG LAMP REALLY A LAMP?

In addition to being stumped by the word “fragile,” The Old Man—and the rest of the family—is initially confused as to what the leg’s purpose is. Is it a statue? (“Yeah, statue!”) One can’t blame them, as there’s no electrical cord to be seen. It’s just a leg. Yet, once the lampshade is discovered, the Parker clan is magically able to plug that titillating little fixture right in. 

7. ONE FINAL THING ABOUT THE LEG LAMP…

After witnessing the moment that Ralphie explains would become “a family controversy for years”—the breaking of the leg lamp—Mrs. Parker balks at her husband’s accusation that she would be jealous of a plastic lamp. But just moments before the “accident” in question, we hear the sound of breaking glass. And lots of it. Plastic doesn’t sound (or break) like that.

8. IS IT TORONTO OR IS IT INDIANA?

Though the film is set in Hohman, Indiana—a fictionalized town based on Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana—parts of the film were shot in Toronto. This becomes apparent in some of the outdoor scenes, such as when the family is shopping for a Christmas tree, as one of the Toronto Transit Commission’s signature red trolley cars zooms by.

9. BOLTS VERSUS NUTS.

We all remember Ralphie’s reaction when his attempt to help his father fix a flat tire goes terribly awry. But here’s a fun fact that only true motorheads would pick up on: In the scene, Ralphie’s dad implores him to hold the hubcap horizontally so that he can put the “nuts” in it. But the 1938 Oldsmobile that he’s driving actually uses removable bolts. A fact that Shepherd confirms in his narration of the scene when he recalls that, “For one brief moment I saw all the bolts silhouetted against the lights of the traffic—and then they were gone.” Oh, fudge!

10. SCOTT SCHWARTZ IS NOT SCHWARTZ. BUT HE IS.

Ralphie’s two best friends are Schwartz, played by R.D. Robb, and Flick, played by Scott Schwartz. As if this tale of two Schwartzes weren’t confusing enough, when Ralphie tells his mom that it’s Schwartz who taught him how to drop the F-bomb, Mrs. Parker immediately calls the boy’s mother. But the voice we hear of fictional Schwartz taking a whooping is actually the voice of Scott Schwartz. Got it?

11. SCHWARTZ’S WHEREABOUTS.

Immediately following his unceremonious (and totally false) ratting out of his buddy, Ralphie remembers how “three blocks away, Schwartz was getting his.” In the original story, that may have very well been the case. But the film’s production called for Schwartz’s home to be just a few doors down from Ralphie’s, as we see as the kids walk to school together. Not three blocks away.

12. RALPHIE’S NOT A VERY GOOD LISTENER.

Ralphie felt understandably ripped off when, after weeks of waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the first message he decoded was simply an advertisement for Ovaltine. But he’s lucky he could decipher the message at all, because a few of the numbers that he wrote down don’t match the numbers that announcer Pierre Andre broadcast, most notably the last one; Pierre said 25, Ralphie wrote 11.

13. UPPERCASE OR LOWERCASE?

Perhaps it’s that very error above that made it necessary for Ralphie to decode Annie’s message on at least two pieces of paper. How do we know that? Check out the difference in the “E” in the word “Be.” In the earlier shot, it’s an uppercase E; in the final message, the letter is lowercase. We’re on to you, Ralphie. 

14. FOR A SPORTS FAN, OLD MAN PARKER DOESN’T KNOW SPORTS.

Though the exact year of A Christmas Story’s setting is never stated, many of its context clues—including the makes and models of the cars we see and the popularity of The Wizard of Oz and Little Orphan Annie—put its year around 1939 or 1940. Yet in the beginning of the film, Mr. Parker becomes irate after reading in the paper that the White Sox “traded Bullfrog.” But the White Sox never traded Bill “Bullfrog” Dietrich, though they did release him on September 18, 1946, which would make this comment six years premature. He also refers to the Chicago Bears as the “Terror of the Midway,” when in fact their nickname is “Monsters of the Midway.”

15. THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS LEVERS.

Old Man Parker seems to have a lot of non-human enemies—his car, the Bumpus hounds, and a seemingly possessed furnace among them. In one scene, The Old Man yells upstairs for someone to open the damper, which Mom does rather reluctantly. But watch closely when the camera cuts back to the levers, which are in the opposite position as Mom set them just seconds earlier.

16. DIVERSITY AS AN ANACHRONISM.

By the time A Christmas Story was released in 1983, racial segregation in Indiana public schools was a thing 34 years in the past. But if Ralphie’s story takes place any time before 1949, he would not have had any African American classmates, as he does in the film.

17. THE ROTATING BANANA.

Hoping to score some extra points with his teacher, Ralphie presents Mrs. Shields with the world’s largest fruit basket. It’s so large, in fact, that its individual pieces of fruit seem to have a mind of their own. Watch the way the banana shifts position each time the camera cuts back to Ralphie.

18. A DRAWER FULL OF UNIMAGINABLE MISCHIEF.

Ralphie and his classmates are a troublemaking lot. And when they decide to launch a classroom-wide prank in which they’re all wearing a set of false teeth, Mrs. Shields is well-prepared. She’s got a drawer full of pranks past, including a pair of chattering teeth … a gag gift that wasn’t actually invented until 1949.

19. SPEAKING OF TOOTHY ANACHRONISMS…

In his attempts to make Ralphie’s life a living hell, we get an up-close view of the braces worn by Scut the bully. They’re the kind that are directly bonded to the front of his teeth, a process that wasn’t invented until the 1970s. Until then, metal braces were wrapped around the teeth.

20. THREE-BARREL HINGED GLASSES WEREN’T A THING EITHER.

After nearly shooting his eye out on Christmas morning, Ralphie steps on his own glasses, revealing them to use a three-barrel hinge connector, which would not have been possible until the 1980s.

21. RALPHIE SHOOTS THREE TIMES, HITS FOUR.

When Ralphie is forced to defend his family against the rascally Black Bart (in his own imagination), he shoots three bad guys before his nemesis Bart escapes. But when the pile of bad guys is shown with their eyes X’ed out, there are four of them.

22. A VERY BING CHRISTMAS.

On Christmas morning, the Parkers kick back with that most classic of Christmas albums—Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas—in the background. As cherished a tradition as that may be, the album wasn’t released until 1945.

23. A BOWLING BALL FOR CHRISTMAS.

Old Man Parker is thrilled when his wife gifts him with a shiny new blue bowling ball for Christmas. There’s just one problem: colored bowling balls weren’t introduced until the 1960s. 

24. MELINDA DILLION GETS TOP BILLING.

Getting top billing must have been quite a thrill for actress Melinda Dillon… until the actual credits rolled and her name was spelled incorrectly!

25. FLASH GORDON GETS CREDIT, TOO.

Keep watching the end credits roll and you’ll see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless among the names that scroll by. Though it never made the final cut, the credits for an additional fantasy sequence in which Ralphie and his trusty firearm help Flash Gordon face off against Ming remain.

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iStock
7 Christmas Foods of Yesteryear 
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iStock

Over the centuries, yuletide revelers have enjoyed far different culinary fare than we do today. Here are seven Christmas dishes of yesteryear that are sure to confuse—or tantalize—your taste buds.

1. PEACOCK

 
During the Medieval ages, some wealthy Europeans dined on peacock at Christmas dinner. The colorful, plumed bird was often baked into a pie, or roasted with its head and tail still intact. Adding to the flamboyant display, the peacock’s feathers were reattached (or the skinned bird was placed back inside its intact skin), and its tail feathers were fully fanned out.

Peacocks likely looked impressive on a banquet table, but the meat reportedly tasted terrible. “It was tough and coarse, and was criticized by physicians for being difficult to digest and for generating bad humors,” author Melitta Weiss Adamson writes in her book Food in Medieval Times. “To make the meat more easily digestible, it was recommended to hang the slaughtered bird overnight by its neck and weigh down the legs with stones.”

In addition to peacock, swans and geese were also on the Christmas menu. But by the 1520s, another roast delicacy—turkey—had been introduced to Great Britain. Explorer William Strickland is credited with bringing the turkey from the New World to England, and King Henry VIII was reportedly one of the first people to enjoy the new bird for Christmas dinner. Edward VII is said to have made the meal trendy.

2. BOAR'S HEAD

An illustration by St. J. Gilbert of a man holding a boar's head on a platter that was published in a Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News in 1855. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
In Medieval and Tudor England, wealthy parties celebrated Christmas by feasting on boar's head. The boar's head "formed the centrepiece of the Christmas Day meal," writes Alison Sim, author of Food and Feast in Tudor England (as quoted by the Food Timeline). "It was garnished with rosemary and bay and evidently was presented to the diners with some style, as told by the many boar's head carols which still exist."

One English Christmas carol, dating back to the 15th century, is actually called the "Boar's Head Carol." Its lyrics include lines like "The boar's head, as I understand/Is the rarest dish in all this land/Which thus bedecked with a gay garland/Let us servire cantico (serve with a song)." You can listen to a version here.

3. OYSTER STEW

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Today, oysters are a delicacy, but for early Americans who settled along the East Coast, they were a plentiful and nutritious food source. People enjoyed them in stuffing, roasts, and chowder—and 19th-century Irish-American immigrants used them to make a traditional Christmas Eve stew.

Most of these Irish transplants were Catholic, and their religious traditions required them to skip the meat on Christmas Eve. Instead, they enjoyed a soup made from dried ling cod—a common fish back in the Old Country—milk, butter, and pepper. But since Irish Americans couldn’t find dried ling cod in America, they substituted it with fresh, canned, pickled, or dried oysters.

4. MINCEMEAT PIES

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Historians trace mincemeat pie (also called mince pie) back to the 11th century, when Crusaders returned from faraway lands with spices. These spices worked as a preservative, so they were baked into pies containing finely chopped meat, dried fruits, and other ingredients.

Mincemeat pies eventually became associated with Christmas. Bakers added three spices to their pies—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—to represent the three gifts the Magi gave the baby Jesus. The pies were also baked into the shape of Jesus’s manger, and a model of the Christ Child was placed on top. People believed that eating a mincemeat pie on each of the 12 Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 6) would bring them good luck.

Over the centuries, the pies grew smaller and rounder, and their filling became less meat heavy, containing ingredients including suet, spices, and dried and brandied fruit. Today, some people still eat mincemeat pie in England—and on December 15 some British scientists fired a meat pie into space—but it’s not commonly seen on Christmas dinner tables in the U.S.

5. SUGARPLUMS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
As a child, you might have been inspired by one of ballet's most famous movements—The Nutcracker's “Dance Of The Sugarplum Fairy"—to wonder what a "sugarplum" actually is. The answer? A hard candy.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the term sugarplum was interchangeable with the words dragee or comfit. All referred to a hard, sugary layered candy. Often, the candy contained caraway, cardamom, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, walnut, aniseed, and almond cores. It took time, skill, and special equipment to make these sweets, so they were originally quite expensive and eaten only by wealthy people. Later, innovations in manufacturing made both sugarplums and other candies cheaper, and available for consumption by the masses.

In addition to getting a shout-out in The Nutcracker, sugarplums are also famously mentioned in Clement Clark Moore's anonymously published 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" after its first line. But today, you're far less likely to see the candies mentioned in a ballet or poem; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sugarplum is now obsolete.

6. POSSET

Long ago, the English enjoyed a predecessor to eggnog called posset, a kind of "wine custard" made from hot milk curdled with hot ale, wine, or sherry, and mixed with sugar and spices. The drink remained common from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century; over time, it disappeared from the culinary landscape.

Throughout the centuries, winter revelers enjoyed variations on the recipe, and eggs were eventually added to the mix. But since milk, eggs, and liquors like sherry and Madeira wine were either expensive or hard to come by, the drink’s popularity dwindled among the masses. Meanwhile, in America, early settlers created their own version of posset, which we today know as eggnog.

In the video above, you can watch Jonathan Townsend, host of YouTube living history channel Jas. Townsend and Son, cook his own version of posset, as adapted from an 18th-century cookbook. His posset has breadcrumbs.

7. ANIMAL CRACKERS

Ever wondered why boxes of Barnum's Animal Crackers have a string attached to them? In 1902, the National Biscuit Company (today known as Nabisco) introduced the circus-themed boxes filled with animal-shaped cookies as a seasonal promotion. Since people often adorned their Christmas trees with candy and/or treats, Barnum’s festive containers were hung on branches as decorations.

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