Ho Ho Ho

12.24.13

8 Facts You Never Knew About Christmas

Magic mushrooms, prostitution, home invasions? The story that Americans celebrate has far from family-friendly origins. The truth about this holiday, beating sticks and all.

The Santa-is-white-myth was thoroughly debunked last week, but it made us wonder: What other things about Christmas do we take for granted? Are workshops filled with worker elves? Does Santa really live at the North Pole? And Rudolph—does he even exist? What can you believe in anymore?

The Daily Beast looked into the details of Christmas that millions of Americans take for granted and found the truths about Santa to be as shaky as a bowl full of jelly.

Fact check: Santa edition

Saint Nick is the patron saint of children… and prostitutes.

The original bearded gift-giver on which the legend of Claus was formed made a name for himself in the Christian faith by helping a poverty-stricken neighbor, whose three virgin daughters would have been forced into prostitution if not for the secret gifts of gold from St. Nick. That’s why St. Nick is the patron saint of prostitutes. But he wasn’t finished. Nicholas earned his better-known title, patron saint of children, by resurrecting three boys who had been murdered by an innkeeper, after their bodies had been pickled in barrels.

It’s unlikely Santa lives in the North Pole.

Think Santa lives in the North Pole? How very American of you. It turns out there’s quite the controversy over where the Christmas icon makes his home.

Norwegians says the man in red resides in Drøbak; the Danes send their wish lists to Greenland. But perhaps the most passionate claim to Santa’s home was made by Finland in 1927. Residents there proclaimed in 1927 that Santa could never live in the North Pole because his reindeer would never survive. Finland’s tourism board now declares “Everyone knows that Santa and his reindeer live in Lapland,” though they concede, he might keep an office at the North Pole.

His relationship with Mrs. Claus is pretty new.

Prior to Margaret Eytinge’s 1881 poem “Mistress Santa Claus,” Santa was a solo, leading incredulous housewives to wonder just how a man better known for his jollies could pull off such a holiday all by himself. University of Minnesota Professor Karal Ann Marling explains that it was in the 19th century that Christmas became a lavish family event and thus, woman’s work. The winter holiday was celebrated with an elaborate feast, trees were meticulously decorated with upright candles, and presents were held in fancy cornucopias then later in perfectly wrapped packages. Without these original Martha Stewarts, there might have been no Mrs. Claus. 

This is a new look for him.

The big-bellied, grandfather type you expect to see slide down your chimney is a direct result of Thomas Nast, an illustrator who in 1881 perfected his iconic image of a rotund, red-cheeked, bearded Santa in Harpers Weekly. Before these famous cartoons went viral, Santa was depicted either as a tall, thin, and less than jolly fellow or an elfin man. (Remember ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick?”)

The Santa we know and love today was given to us by Haddon Sundblom, who was commissioned by Coca-Cola to create a “wholesome Santa.” Sundblom’s 1931 version of the ruddy-complexioned Santa also cemented his red and white suit.

He doesn’t work alone.

Delivering toys to all the good little girls and boys is a big job, and at one time (and still in some places) St. Nick had friends to help out. In the Netherlands, St. Nick has Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a type of servant who hands out pranks as well as candy. In Austria, a far more terrifying figure keeps the children on the nice list: His cloven-footed friend Krampus is armed with a bundle of birch sticks for beating and a large sack for snatching naughty children and hauling them back to Hell.

Reindeers pull the sleigh.

Fact: Reindeers don’t fly. So why not a flock of eagles to pull Santa’s sleigh? There are some far-out theories for this one, including one that posits Siberian shamans used magic mushrooms to hallucinate with the beasts. But the more widely accepted tale of how we got to Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and the rest lies with the Norse god Odin (an early influence for our beloved Santa) who delivered gifts while atop a flying, eight-legged, white horse named Sleipnir.

Elves make the toys.

Elves have been associated with Christmas for some time – Santa himself was described as one in 1822—but the hardworking little guys we think of today didn’t show up until an 1857 poem in Harper’s Weekly told the tale of Santa’s workshop:

In his house upon the top of a hill,

And almost out of sight,

He keeps a great many elves at work,

All working with all their might,

To make a million of pretty things,

Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,

To fill the stockings, hung up you know

By the little girls and boys.

Elves in other countries aren’t so helpful. In Greece, they sneak into homes to scare children, and in Scandinavia, the gnomes play pranks.

Santa loves milk and cookies.

Come on kids, get creative. Santa snacks on rice pudding in Denmark, sponge cake in Chile, Kulkuls in India, and mince pies in the U.K. The Brits also leave Santa a sherry, because hey, it’s going to be a long night.