Think you know your Christmas traditions? Think again. The author of A Christmas Cornucopia, Mark Forsyth, shares ten myth-busting and fascinating stories behind our Yule traditions.
1. Everyone’s forgotten the true meaning of Christmas and it’s now just about eating and having a good time, said Gregory of Nazianzus in 386AD.
What’s even stranger is that Christmas is first recorded in the year 334, so whatever the true meaning was only lasted for fifty years.
2. The first recorded Christmas tree in Britain was in 1444.
It could be found on Cornhill in the City of London next to where Leadenhall Market is now. But it was a one off and Christmas trees didn’t return to Britain until the nineteenth century when they were popularised by Prince Albert. Victorians used to put a Union Jack at the top.
3. The Dutch believe that Santa Claus lives in Spain.
The idea that he lives at the North Pole was invented in America in the late nineteenth century. The actual St Nicholas, on whom Santa Claus is based, lived in Myra in what’s now Turkey.
4. Jingle Bells is an American song that was written about Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
Other carols that don’t mention Christmas at all are Ding Dong Merrily on High and Good King Wenceslas.
5. Advent doesn’t begin on 1st December (or it only does one year in seven).
It begins on the closest Sunday to St Andrew’s day, which is 30th November. So this year Advent begins on 27th November.
6. Good King Wenceslas was ambushed and assassinated by his brother Boleslaus the Cruel in the tenth century.
That he could be surprised like this proves that Good King Wenceslas did not look out.
7. Santa Claus’s red outfit has nothing whatsoever to do with Coca Cola.
Coca Cola did use Santa in a campaign in 1933, but he was almost always dressed in red before that. In fact, you can see how he looked before Coke got him in this advert from 1923, ten years earlier.
8. Christmas Day has never been very popular in Scotland, where they concentrate on New Year.
Christmas only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958 and there were still top-flight football matches played on 25th December until 1976.
9. There’s nothing in the Bible to suggest that Jesus was born in December.
Indeed, the only clue that the Bible gives as to the date of Jesus’ birth is that shepherds were watching their flocks at night. In ancient Judaea shepherds only did this from March through to November, the rest of the time it was too cold.
10. Brussels sprouts didn’t appear in any British recipe book until 1845.
The original recipe said that they should be eaten on toast.
More about the book
The unpredictable origins and etymologies of our cracking Christmas customs
For something that happens every year of our lives, we really don't know much about Christmas.
We don't know that the date we celebrate was chosen by a madman, or that Christmas, etymologically speaking, means 'Go away, Christ'. Nor do we know that Christmas was first celebrated in 243 AD on 28 March - and only moved to 25 December in 354 AD. We're oblivious to the fact that the advent calendar was actually invented by a Munich housewife to stop her children pestering her for a Christmas countdown. And we would never have guessed that the invention of crackers was merely a way of popularizing sweet wrappers.
Luckily, like a gift from Santa himself, Mark Forsyth is here to unwrap this fundamentally funny gallimaufry of traditions and oddities, making it all finally make sense - in his wonderfully entertaining wordy way.