12 facts you didn’t know about Christmas

23 Dec 2016

Image: Robert Lessmann/Shutterstock

Get ready to impress your family at the Christmas dinner table with some historical and science-based facts about Christmas traditions.

Why do some people hate Brussels sprouts? Why do so many of us enjoy a chocolate treat from the advent calendar? How long will it take for you to burn off that impending Christmas feast?

These are just some of the questions answered by the Irish Research Council’s ‘12 facts of Christmas’, sticking to the scientific and historical facts of the matter.

“We grow up taking so many Christmas traditions for granted, but we often neglect to wonder where they came from or why they exist,” said Dr Eucharia Meehan, director of the Irish Research Council (IRC).

‘We grow up taking so many Christmas traditions for granted, but we often neglect to wonder where they came from or why they exist’

Meehan hopes that these 12 facts might satisfy some curiosity around Christmas traditions, with the help of some Irish research.

“In providing these answers, we’ve drawn on research being conducted in institutions throughout Ireland, and on the expertise and findings of researchers in areas as diverse as astronomy, horticulture, geology, statistics and physics,” she said.

The ‘12 facts of Christmas’ comes as part of the IRC’s #LoveIrishResearch campaign, which has been running throughout 2016. The campaign aims to connect members of the public with the amazing work being conducted by researchers in Ireland and to highlight their achievements across multiple fields.

1. Where do Christmas trees come from?

Every year, there are 60m Christmas trees sold across Europe, then trimmed in tinsel and baubles and used to provide shelter for presents. But why?

It all dates back to 16-century Germany and an idea from religious reformer Martin Luther. Legend has it that Luther was walking home through a forest one night and noticed the stars twinkling through the branches of evergreen trees. Inspired, he brought a fir tree into his own home and decorated it with candles. He explained to his family that the lights were to remind them of the stars and heaven.

Luther’s idea spread across Germany, and the tradition reportedly reached the UK in the 1800s through the German-born spouses of members of the royal family.

2. Why does Rudolph have a red nose?

Medical researchers in the US and the Netherlands were suspicious about the famous reindeer’s scarlet srón, so they travelled to Norway to investigate. Using video-imaging technology, they took an extremely close look at how blood circulates in reindeers’ nasal passages and found that their blood vessels and circulation networks are 25pc more densely packed than those in the noses of humans. That would somewhat explain a bright red glow.

3. How many calories will you consume on Christmas Day?

The recommended daily calorie intake for adults is roughly 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men. However, the average Christmas dinner plate is piled with about 3,000 calories, and that’s not even counting the drinks with the long meal.

To put this into some perspective, it would take almost 12 hours to walk off a feast of this size. Be sure to wrap up and wear comfortable shoes – it’s going to be a long trek!

Christmas traditions: Brussels sprouts with dinner

Image: Magdanatka/Shutterstock

4. Why do some people detest Brussels sprouts?

If you object to Brussels sprouts on your Christmas dinner plate, you’re not alone. Brussels sprouts contain glucosinolate which, when cooked, breaks down into a chemical called isothiocyanates. Research indicates that about 70pc of the population experience a bitter taste from this chemical, while it goes unnoticed to the rest.

That said, it’s worth considering munching on the little green veg as they are packed with vitamins, folic acid, fibre and minerals. They also have more protein than most other vegetables and have even been linked to anti-cancer properties.

5. Why does Christmas dinner make us sleepy?

Turkey and other meats you may find at the Christmas table contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that’s associated with drowsiness. But even the vegetarians aren’t safe from the temptation of an after-dinner nap, as the amount of food consumed will require increased blood flow to the digestive system to aid digestion. That means less blood flowing elsewhere in the body, and an all-round tired feeling. So much for that 12-hour walk!

6. How does chocolate taste so good?

That tricky amino acid tryptophan is at play again here. It has an important role in producing the neurotransmitter serotonin in our bodies. These chemicals relay brain signals from one area of the brain to another and high levels of serotonin are associated with feelings of wellbeing. That’s why eating chocolate is intrinsically linked with a sense of enjoyment.

7. How far does Santa travel on Christmas Eve?

Santa has a long journey of about 120m km ahead of him on Christmas Eve. Thankfully, he has 32 hours to do it because of the changing time zones around the world – though he will need to travel at an average speed of 1,000km per second.

A conventional reindeer runs at a speed of about 24km per hour, so Santa’s squad are performing way above average, to say the least.

8. How heavy is Santa’s sleigh?

Throughout this incredible journey, Santa needs to transport enough gifts for between 500m and 600m children. If each present weights about 1kg, that’s a cargo weight approaching 600,000 tons – the equivalent of about 82 Eiffel Towers. Those poor reindeer!

9. How does Santa deliver all the presents?

In a word: quickly! There are about 170m homes to hit in one night, so Santa must visit 1,475 per second to stay on track, leaving roughly 0.0007 seconds to get in, leave presents, have a snack and get out. Phew!

Santa Claus

Image: Milles Studio/Shutterstock

10. Why do we send Christmas cards?

This is another tradition originating from Germany, though the first families to do so in the 14th century sent New Year’s cards. It became a Christmas tradition when English schoolchildren made cards called ‘Christmas pieces’ in the early 18th century. Each card was decorated by hand and sent home in time for Christmas.

Manufacturers got involved in the 1860s, when postage became more affordable and, from there, the custom spread to Europe and America. By the 1900s, Christmas cards had become a firm favourite, with printers churning out mass-produced cards each year.

11. Why is holly used as a Christmas decoration?

As is common in Christian customs, holly is one borrowed from pagan times and has a history of use in rituals and celebrations long before Christmas claimed it.

Ancient Romans associated it with their sun god, Saturn, and, in Ireland, druids believed holly to be very special because of its evergreen nature. While deciduous trees lose their leaves, holly is a bright, green feature of the winter landscape. This made it a freely available decoration for homes at Christmastime, which is how it’s believed to have begun its association with the annual holiday.

12. Why do people kiss under the mistletoe?

Mistletoe is another tradition borrowed from the pagans. It was previously associated with fertility rites, with boughs of mistletoe hung to ward off evil spirits and promote fertility. Kissing under the mistletoe is interpreted as a natural extension of this custom.

Mistletoe also makes an appearance in Norse mythology. In the legend of Baldur and Loki, a mistletoe spear was used to kill Baldur. Subsequently, it was decreed that mistletoe would forever more bring love to the world, not death.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.