CHRISTMAS WAS BANNED
It sounds like a joke, but Christmas was indeed banned in this country in 1647. The Puritan Parliament was fiercely opposed to the drinking, feasting and partying that came ever Christmas. Not only did they regard it as a sinful pagan-inspired festival, but they also associated it with the much-despised Catholic Church. So they decided to forbid the whole thing, actually imprisoning people who dared to celebrate on December 25th. Pro-Christmas riots broke out, and resistance to the ban continued for years, with one writer lamenting the "the people holding fast to their heathenish customs and abominable idolatries." The ban was eventually lifted with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
THE REAL SANTA CLAUS
The "real" Santa Claus didn't hail from anywhere near the North Pole. Saint Nicholas was actually a Greek priest who was born in the 3rd Century AD in what is now Turkey. Known for fiery religious passion, his exploits as a man of God inspired many stories - some miraculous, some rather dark. One tale recounts how he apprehended the murderer of three children, while another tells of how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by delivering bags of gold to their indebted father. Long after his death, the legend of his generosity and kindness would help inspire the story of Santa Claus.
JINGLE BELLS ISN'T JUST FOR CHRISTMAS
Jingle Bells is the greatest Christmas song... which isn't a Christmas song. Despite the festive imagery of the lyrics, it was actually penned to coincide with Thanksgiving. Its writer was a church organist in Savannah, Georgia called James Lord Pierpont. The uncle of the famous financier JP Morgan, Pierpont first published the song in the mid-19th Century under the title One Horse Open Sleigh. It was only later on that it was adopted as a Christmas standard. Added trivia tidbit: Jingle Bells became the first song ever transmitted from space, when it was performed by astronauts in 1965.
WHY "BOXING DAY"?
Why is Boxing Day called Boxing Day? Strangely enough, nobody actually knows for sure, although there are competing theories. The name might stem from an age-old tradition of churches opening donation boxes to distribute alms to the poor on the day after Christmas. Or is it linked to the custom of giving "Christmas boxes" of extra pay which would be given to labourers and servants after December 25th? Alternatively, you can just ignore the phrase "Boxing Day" altogether and refer to it by its other name: St Stephen's Day.
RUDOLPH THE CORPORATE MASCOT
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer may seem like a permanent part of Christmas tradition, but he didn't emerge from folklore or fairy tales. He was invented by an advertising copywriter in 1939. The writer in question, Robert L. May was paid by a Chicago retailer to create a character for their colouring books. He came up with a reindeer called Rudolph - after wisely deciding against Reginald, Roland and Rodney. Its huge success inspired the famous song written by Johnny Marks, the same composer who gave us Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.
THE MEANING OF MISTLETOE
Mistletoe may be the most romantic bit of festive décor, but it's actually a parasite that ruthlessly attaches itself to trees in order to suck the host's nutrients out. Mistletoe can actually do a fair amount of damage that way, and certain species are highly toxic if eaten. And the name itself? It derives from an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning "dung on a stick".
THE FIRST EVER NATIVITY SCENE
Every Nativity scene you've ever seen - whether on Christmas cards, in department stores, or in school plays - stems from the work of one man. None other than the great writer and religious thinker, St Francis of Assisi. According to historical accounts, it was in the year 1223 that Francis visited a town called Grecio at Christmas. Needing a large space to hold his Mass, Francis created a manger scene inside a cave, complete with a live ox and donkey. He was apparently so moved by his own creation that he wept with joy. And the "modern" Nativity scene was born.