Santa Claus is coming to town, but did he always look like he looks now? We tell you a story of a French Scrooge who overheard their animals talk at midnight, describe the first Christmas trees and warn you about the dangers of kissing under the mistletoe in the wilderness – here are six things you didn’t know about Christmas.
Many Christmas celebrations have actually pagan roots
Although Jesus’s date of birth is not confirmed by any means by historians, the 25th of December is said to replace the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. The traditions that were brought over from that period included continuous parties and gift-giving. At the time, masters would swap roles with the slaves for one dinner party. When Christianity was brought to Slavic tribes in the middle ages, the Christmas Eve became a name given to the previous festive dinner celebrated at that time for the ghosts and ancestors around the same time of the year. The Christmas tree tradition is actually said to date back to German tribes, who decorated the green fir trees and hung them upside down from the ceilings.
Santa Claus has a real mail address
Were you a good girl or a good boy this year? If you stopped believing in Santa Claus when you were eight, you might find it surprising that he has a real snail mail address – you can drop him a letter, or encourage younger siblings or nieces to write a few lines to him before they learn how to use their iPhones and iPads they inevitably receive this Christmas. In the capital of Finnish Laponia and a city that all passionates of ski jumping will probably know – Rovaniemi, there is a real post office that handles Santa’s mail, and a lovely Christmas village. Wanna make sure your gifts arrive on time? Take a piece of paper and a pen, and drop him a line at:
Santa didn’t always look the same
The person who inspired Santa was Saint Nicholas, the bishop that has apparently provided the dowry for three women without revealing his identity so that his beneficiaries could get married. However, the Santa we know now in the Western world was created in the 19th century in America, and shaped thanks to the works of Thomas Nast, a caricaturist. Later on, the Coca-Cola company whose Christmas adverts always announce it’s about the time to celebrate, used the image of Santa in their advertisement materials, more or less popularising the image of a jolly, bearded old man in their corporate colours.
The kiss under the mistletoe wasn’t at all popular up until the 19th century, but the plant was known even by the Celts by its magical, protective, healing powers – it was meant to bring good luck and increase fertility, and Druids believed it was an aphrodisiac. Funnily enough, there’s a bird that was named after it: mistle thrush is a little songbird that enjoys picking on its berries a lot. Once it finds a mistletoe tree, it will protect it from the others and help to spread its seeds further… in its droppings. Be careful under that mistletoe, you lot.
There are more different festive gift-giving days in Europe
In case the 25th of December wasn’t enough for you to share Christmas presents, surprise your family and friends on the gift-giving days popular across Europe. In Poland, the 6th of December is widely celebrated as Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas Day – it’s the time when kids at school and colleagues at work participate in Secret Santa, and when the parents leave tiny gifts for the kids for the first time in December. A month after, the Spanish celebrate Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day) – and it’s the day that the kids truly anticipate. Although Santa might have dropped them a small present on the Christmas Day, it’s the three kings who are believed to leave presents for children on the 6th of January. In Greece, on the other hand, most people don’t exchange gifts until the 1st of January, so that these gifts are not intercepted by goblins over 12 days of Christmas.
‘Tis the night when the animals speak
The old European tradition says that exactly at night when Christmas Eve breaks into Christmas Day, the animals speak with human voices. This is why the Polish tradition of sharing the bread to announce no grudges between those who perform it, and to wish your family and friends all the best in the coming year, was extended also to the animals. Nowadays, many kids will spend some time preparing little treats for their pets and wait to ask them a few questions. A French legend, however, said that once upon a time, a stingy mistress of a cat and a dog overheard the animals speaking about her forthcoming future during the Christmas night. The pets knew that the burglars were coming to steal her money and break her head when she cries out for help, but they didn’t plan to warn her. She was starving them, and they didn’t feel any pity towards her. She ran out of the house to hide away at her neighbour’s place to avoid the fate, but bumped into the thieves as she was going outside – and the prophecy was fulfilled. Sinister enough for a Christmas tale, and another Scrooge in the festive books…
Author’s note: As a child, I’ve spent so many Christmas nights believing that my beloved dogs will speak to me at some point… No chat with animals ever happened unless you count my sister in.