The A to Z of Christmas

Saturday, 31 December 2011

In case you missed it, here's a summary of this year's A to Z of Christmas...

Z is for Zoophagous

Friday, 30 December 2011

Christmas Day 1870 saw the city of Paris under siege by the Prussian army. However, the fact that the enemy had stopped any food getting into the city for 99 days (and counting), wasn’t going to stop Café Voisin, 261 rue Saint-Honoré, from serving a fabulous, slap-up Christmas dinner. If you had been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be there yourself you would have enjoyed the following splendid repast:

Butter-Radishes, Stuffed Donkey’s Head, Sardines

Purée of Red Beans with Croûtons
Elephant Consummé

Fried Gudgeons, Roast Camel English Style
Jugged Kangaroo
Roast Bear Chops au Poivre

Haunch of Wolf, Venison Sauce
Cat Flanked by Rats
Watercress Salad
Antelope Terrine with Truffles
Mushroom Bordelaise
Buttered Green Peas

Rice Cake with Jam
Gruyère Cheese


First service
Latour Blanche 1861
Château Palmer 1864

Second service
Mouton Rothschild 1846
Romanee Conti 1858
Grand Porto 1827

And where did they get all the fresh meat from? Let’s just say a trip to the zoo on Boxing Day would have been a bit of a let-down.

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

What's the most unwanted Christmas gift this year?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The X Factor winners' single, that's what!

Little Mix’s single Cannonball (a cover of the Damien Rice song) has sunk like its namesake.

According to a poll by the British Heart Foundation, asking people to reveal their least wanted Christmas present, twenty-five per cent of those surveyed said the X Factor 2011 winners’ single was the gift they’d least like to receive.

Despite winning this year’s X Factor, Little Mix sold only 210,000 copies of their song during its first week of release. While final figures will be higher, the group look set to record the second lowest sales of a winner's single since The X Factor's inaugural year, 2004, when Steve Brookstein shifted just 128,000 copies of Against All Odds.

Little Mix also have the dubious honour of being only the third X Factor winners not to claim the Christmas number one spot. They were outsold by five-to-one by The Military Wives Choir. Go, Gareth!

Y is for Yule

To our pagan ancestors living in the frozen north of Europe and Scandinavia, the dark days of winter were a frightening time. The darkness was the domain of demons and malicious spirits. On top of that, Odin, chief among the Norse gods, flew through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, looking down at the world with his furious one-eyed gaze, deciding who should prosper and who perish in the year ahead.

The sensible choice was to stay inside at this time of year, safe from the darkness and the horrors it held. To help keep the darkness at bay, on or around the 21 December, the time of the winter solstice, fathers and sons would go out into the forests and bring back to hearth and home the largest log they could find. This massive piece of timber was then put on the fire and left to burn for the entirety of the season of Yule – twelve days altogether.

Yule was the name given to the Viking festive feast, a time when light and new birth were celebrated in the face of darkness and death as witnessed in the natural world. It was at this time that evergreens were brought into the house; a sign that life persisted, even during these darkest days of the year.
However, despite the deeply-felt need to keep the darkness outside, in Scandinavia people believed that the burning Yule log also warmed the frozen shades of the family’s dearly-departed, who returned to the ancestral home every Christmas Eve. Some families even went to the trouble of laying a place for them at the dinner table.

Did you know...?
The Yule log was once associated with the Norse god Thor, who had a mysterious connection to oak trees.

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

X is for Xmas

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Every year more than 400 million people celebrate Christmas around the globe, which makes it one of the biggest religious and commercial festivities in the world.

But have you ever wondered why Christmas is so often shortened to Xmas?

In fact, the practice dates back further than you might suspect, ans has nothing to do with devaluing the Christian festival, as many people believe. In reality, both Christ and Christmas have been abbreviated for at least 1,000 years. The word Christ appears in Medieval documents as both 'XP' and 'Xt' and can even be found in this form in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 1021. By why were those particular letters used?

To find out more you'll have to pick up my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- or its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

W is for Winterval (and Wassail)

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Winterval - you might have heard of it. It caused a bit of a furore a few years back.

In fact, it all started in 1997 when Mike Chubb was working for Birmingham city council during the rejuvenation of the city centre. As the council's head of events he and his team were charged with creating a marketing strategy to cover:

"41 days and nights of activity that ranged from BBC Children in Need, to the Christmas Lights Switch On, to a Frankfurt Christmas Market, outdoor ice rink, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Diwali, shopping at Christmas, world class theatre and arts plus, of course, New Year's Eve with its massive 100,000 audience."

Chubb realised that with so many events competing for visitors, marketing them as individual occasions would be expensive, time-consuming and ineffective in acquiring sponsorship or funding. What the events needed, he decided, was a "generic banner under which they could all sit". His team settled on 'Winterval' – a portmanteau of 'winter' and 'festival'.

Little did he or anyone else on the events team realise that this name was to found one of the most persistent urban myths of modern times, and that 11 years later he would be writing an article explaining – again – what the event was and how it was never about renaming or banning Christmas.

To read more about this story, click here.

Of course, W is also for Wassail. The word 'wassail' comes from the Old English 'waes hael' meaning 'be healthy', but came to denote the practice of travelling from house to house, demanding food and drink in return for a few verses of whatever carol the singers could remember at the time.

Did you know...?
The expression 'to drink a toast' originates with the custom of wassailing?

Today you can enjoy English Heritage's own Wassail Ale and hear a traditional wassailing song as sung by the popular Britpop band Blur!

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

V is for Vienna

Monday, 26 December 2011

Starting at the end of November and lasting until Christmas Day you can find a Christkindlmärkte on nearly every street corner of the Austrian city of Vienna. Small huts provide you with all manner of Christmas gifts, food and - most importantly - hot punch, as well as Glühwein (heated sweetened wine).

The Christkindlmarkt on the square in front of the City Hall is Vienna's classic Christmas Market. Strolling among the elaborately decorated trees in the park, Viennese and visitors from all over the world can enjoy the wonderful Christmas atmosphere. The tree with seals, the "Kasperl tree", the "Herzerlbaum" (Hearts tree) as well as the "Post office in the clouds" offer a perfect setting for a souvenir photo.

The festively illuminated Schoenbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Austrian Emperors, provides a spectacular backdrop for an idyllic Christmas village full of the scent of mulled wine and ginger bread. And almost every day, festive concerts spread Christmas mood!

In this lovely historical quarter both traditional and original handicraft is sold on narrow paved alleyways, niches and courtyards. It's Vienna's most authentic Christmas market.

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

Boxing Day!

Today is the Feast of Saint Stephen (as in the one sung about in Good King Wenceslas), also known as Wren Day (once upon a time), more commonly known as Boxing Day. But why?

Well, it has nothing to do with putting out the boxes that all the presents came in on Christmas Day. It is instead to do with alms boxes. The day after Christmas, the priest would open the collection boxes that had been left in church over the festive period and then distribute the money to the poor and needy of the parish.

Boxing Day has a whole host of traditions associated with it, everything from horse racing and fox hunting to wren hunting and mummers' plays. As a child I visited the village of Marshfield in Gloucestershire once to watch the famous mummer's play there.

Boxing Day is also when the sales start, of course, although this year they seemed to start some time before Christmas. To find out more about Boxing Day and it's traditions why not turn to the chapter 'Why is 26 December called Boxing Day?' in your copy of What is Myrrh Anyway? or Christmas Miscellany?

26 December is also the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas...

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Eve

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Yes, it's almost here - there's only one day to go until Christmas Day! So, what does Christmas Eve itself have in store?

Well, traditionalists will be putting up their Christmas trees and other decorations today, whilst last minute shoppers will be panic buying, spending (on average) £33 on last minute purchases (if they can get to the shops, that is).

There are many traditions associated with this day, but some have long been forgotten. First there is the tradition of the Dumb Cake (a type of loaf!) which a young spinster would make in silence to help her determine the identity of her future intended.

Christmas Eve was considered a day of abstinence and, as such, was a day when traditionally fish was eaten rather than meat. It is also a day when younger parishioners attend a Crib Service at church.

Of course it is tonight when hopeful children (and some adults) hang up stockings (or sacks!) in the expectation that Father Christmas might fill them to bursting with presents.

And some people attend Midnight Mass with churches welcoming in Christmas Day with a peal of bells (announcing the birth of Christ and the death of the Devil).

You can read more about these traditions (and a number of others) in What is Myrrh Anyway? and Christmas Miscellany, which is still available from good bookshops until they close for Christmas later today.

What is Myrrh Anyway? and Christmas Miscellany make the perfect Christmas stocking fillers!

U is for Unprepared

Friday, 23 December 2011

So, with Christmas only two days away, are you ready for the big day yet? No? Me neither!

But before you dash off to the local garage to buy that special someone another chocolate orange, bear in mind that if you've already left your Christmas shopping a little late, you risk paying 50% more than those people who... how shall we put it?... a little better organised.

Those who were out buying gifts before December 17 spent, on average, £37.28 on each item, compared to £54.37 shelled out the following week.

Anyway, on that sobering note, I must dash! That box of Matchsticks isn't going to wrap itself!

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

T is also for Turkeygeddon

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Around 10 million Turkeys are eaten every Christmas in the UK, which amounts to over 19,000 tonnes of the stuff being cooked. 6,711 tonnes of that are fresh whole turkeys with the another 12,472 tonnes being frozen whole birds.

And of course turkeys aren't originally from turkey - they're from Mexico. The confusion arose due to the fact that they were introduced into central Europe by Turkish merchants.

Just to add to the confusion, because America had been discovered by explorers seeking an alternative route to India and the East, other nations named the bird assuming it was of Indian descent.

In France the turkey was called coq d'Inde, (now corrupted to dindon). In Italy, turkey was galle d'India, in Germany the name was indianische henn, while throughout the Ottoman Empire it was called the hindi.

Other tasty morsels of information like this can be found in the books over on the left-hand sidebar but until yours arrives in the post from Amazon, why not keep yourself amused by taking part in a festively-themed turkey shoot, by clicking this link?

T is for the (Glastonbury) Thorn

The Glastonbury Thorn is a hawthorn, of a type which originates in the Middle East, that grows in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, England. Legend has it that it grew from where Joseph of Arimathea (supposedly Jesus's uncle) laid his staff, and has flowered every Christmas Day since.

A cutting from the Glastonbury Thorn was sent to the monarch each Christmas by the Vicar and Mayor of Glastonbury. However, the tree was pronounced dead in June 1991, and cut down the following February.

Fortunately, plenty of cuttings were taken from it before its destruction so that a new Thorn could be planted. In fact, the hawthorn growing in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey before 1991 was itself supposedly a cutting from the original plant, planted in secret after the original was destroyed.

Only hawthorn trees that budded or grafted from the original exist. The plants actually blossom twice a year, in May as well as at Christmas. The blossoms of the Christmas shoots are smaller than the ones the plant produces in May and do not produce any haws, the small, oval, berry-like fruit of the hawthorn, which are dark red in colour.

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You will find many other such interesting snippets of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

Happy Saint Thomas's Day!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

21 December is traditionally the date of the winter solstice, the year's longest night and shortest day, and sometimes referred to as Yule. The winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun's position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observers' hemisphere. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the event of the winter solstice occurs some time between December 20 and December 23 each year in the northern hemisphere.

The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradually lengthening nights and shortening days. How cultures interpret this is varied, since it is sometimes said to astronomically mark either the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. Though the winter solstice lasts an instant, the term is also colloquially used to refer to the full 24-hour period of the day on which it occurs.

Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings and other ritual celebrations around that time.

Did you know...?
The word solstice derives from Latin sol, meaning 'sun', and sistere, 'to stand still'.

Saint Thomas' Day is also celebrated on 21 December. Saint Thomas is commemorated on this day because he was the last one of the apostles to become convinced of Jesus' resurrection - in other words, he was the one who for the longest time remained in the 'night of unbelief and doubt.' He is also supposedly to have died on this day c. AD72, near Chennai in India.

These are various traditions practised on this day, particularly in Germany, including the Thomasfaulpelz or Domesel, and the Rittberg wedding.

Thomasfaulpelz or Domesel (the 'lazybone' or 'donkey' of Saint Thomas day) were names given to the last person to get out of bed and for the last student to appear in class on that particular morning in Westphalia (roughly the region between the Rivers Rhine and Weser, located north of the Ruhr River).

The Rittburgische Hochzeit (Rittberg wedding), also in Westphalia, was an opulent meal served in the belief that if you ate well on Saint Thomas day, you could expect to do so all of the next year.

So, Happy Saint Thomas Day!

S is for Star of Bethlehem

In Christian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem (also called the Christmas Star) revealed the birth of Jesus to the magi and led them to Bethlehem. The star appears in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew, where magi "from the east" are inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem. The star eventually leads them to Jesus' house in Bethlehem, where they pay him homage, worship him, and give him gifts.

Many Christians see the star as a miraculous sign to mark Christ's birth. Some theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy, while astronomers have made several attempts to link the star to unusual astronomical events. Current contenders for the Star of Bethlehem include:

1) A series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC (proposed by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1614). However, modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive.

2) An astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces (as argued by Dr. Karlis Kaufmanis).

3) A comet. Halley's Comet was visible in 12 BC and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BC. This object was observed for over seventy days with no movement recorded. Also, ancient writers described comets as "hanging over" specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have "stood over" the place where Jesus was in the town of Bethlehem. However, in ancient times comets were generally seen as bad omens.

4) Uranus, which passed close to Saturn in 9 BC and Venus in 6 BC. However, this is unlikely because Uranus moves very slowly and is barely visible with the naked eye.

Did you know...?
The star often appears in representations of the manger scene found in Luke, although the star and the wise men do not appear in Luke's nativity story.

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

R is for Reindeer (and Rovaniemi)

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

How cool does this look? I mean, who wouldn't want to be pulled along, on skis, over snow by a galloping reindeer?

Having missed out on the opportunity to become a cross-country reindeer racer when I was young, I have instead, many years later, found myself writing about the reindeer (or rangifer tarandus for the classically inclined) in What is Myrrh Anyway? (and Christmas Miscellany).

For example, did you know that a reindeer calf can outrun a man at only one day old, or that the Finns once measured distance in terms of how far a reindeer could run without having to stop for a pee?
The reindeer is the only deer that can be domesticated, and was the first hoofed animal to be domesticated. It provides the nomadic tribes who live within the Arctic Circle (such as the Lapps) with milk, cheese, meat, fat, clothing, footwear, tools (made from the antlers and bones), highly durable bindings (made from the animal’s sinews) and a means of transport.

In Iceland, reindeer meat (or hreindýr) is becoming an increasingly popular Christmas dinner choice, while the Lapp people of Scandinavia believe that taking powdered reindeer antlers increases virility. Reindeer themselves are vegetarians by choice but when when the supply of greenery runs out they will eat anything, and everything, from eggs and shed antlers, to placenta and even rodents!

Did you know...?
Santa Claus - whose association with reindeer cannot go unremarked - has his official post office in Rovaniemi, the capital of the Province of Lapland in northern Finland. The jolly old elf receives somewhere in the region of 600,000 letters each year!

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You will find many other such festive facts in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

Q is for Quiz

Monday, 19 December 2011

Or rather The Chrismologist's Ultimate Christmas Quiz.

It's one that anyone from 8 to 80 can enjoy so why not test your family and friends this festive season? I'll be posting the answers in the New Year.

So, without further ado, here's the first question...

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You will find the answers to many of the questions in my Ultimate Christmas Quiz in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas. Just saying...

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!

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