Friday, December 23, 2011

Fun Friday Facts #21: Christmas Edition

A Mother Life

Christmas is the day after tomorrow. The dead tree is festooned with baubles, the lights are hanging from the window for some reason, and three boxes of leftover ornaments are still sitting out in the middle of the floor because we're lazy. The gifts, needless to say, have yet to be wrapped.

Here, Faithful Readers, are your facts:

1) According to this probably-reputable website, Charles Dickens originally told Ebeneezer Scrooge to exclaim “Bah, Christmas!” in the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. By changing the catchphrase to “Bah, humbug!” Dickens presumably capitalized on the meaning of the word “humbug,” which was, at the time, “nonsense,” “gibberish,” “jest,”“hoax,” or “impostor.”

Nowadays, of course, it means "crotchety old c*nt who hates Christmas."

2) Speaking of A Christmas Carol, Dickens makes it clear that Bob Cratchitt's son, Tiny Tim, will die if Scrooge continues to deprive his family of the resources they need. Dickens never names Tiny Tim's disease, but it's made clear that a more nutritious diet is key to his recovery. Many literary scholars believe that the boy was dying of rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that causes softening of the bones, osteoporosis, musclar weakness and pain in the joints. It's possible that the smog in 19th century London was thick enough to block out the sunlight, depriving Tiny Tim's body of the opportunity to manufacture its own vitamin D, and these were the days before fortified foods largely eradicted vitamin deficiencies in the developed world.

Other scholars believe that Tiny Tim was suffering from renal tubular acidosis, a kidney disease that disrupts the blood's pH levels. Doctors of the time wouldn't have been able to identify such a disease, any more than they would have been able to identify a vitamin D deficiency. In any case, it's likely that they would have treated Tiny Tim's symptoms with a change of diet.

Me, I'm putting my money on rickets.

3) As many of you are no doubt aware by now, the holiday now known as Christmas is one of the world's oldest excuses to throw a party. Perhaps that's why we make such a big deal of it.

Christmas coincides rather nicely with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, after which the days start getting longer again. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Europeans celebrated the occasion in much the same way they do now, by feasting and drinking. Pre-Christian peoples figured the advent of winter was as good a time as any to slaughter all the livestock, since they wouldn't be able to feed it through the cold months anyway. Fresh meat wasn't as plentiful in the days before refrigeration, so they ate as much as they could as soon as they'd killed it. The year's beer and wine was also well-fermented and ready for drinking right around this same time.


3) When Christianity was a young religion, its biggest holiday was Easter. This made sense, not only because Easter's kind of a big deal, but also because everyone could agree on the correct date. The Bible doesn't specify the date of Jesus's birth, and some people think he must have been born in the spring or summer, because why would shepherds be herding sheep in the middle of winter?

Is there such a thing as a "middle of winter" here? ~ FinnWikiNo/Richardprins

Scholars from Indiana University believe that the Star of Bethlemen may have been an unusual convergence of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which would have created a dazzingly bright “star” on the western horizon on 17 June in the year 2 BC. Such a convergence has not been seen for, oh, about 2,000 years.

The convergence would have occurred in the Leo constellation, which was linked with the Hebrews in the Old Testament. It may have also aligned with the star Regulus, which was associated with kingship. So, theoretically, if some wise men living east of ancient Judea had seen this “star” blazing in the sky, right next to this kingship star, they might have taken it as a sign to hustle their butts to Bethlehem, posthaste.

But I digress. By the fourth century AD, the winter solstice had become Christmas. Pope Julius I established 25 December as the official date of the Christmas feast. It's commonly believed that the growing Catholic Church hoped to win more pagan converts by incorporating this beloved festival, and its already-ancient traditions, into the Catholic calendar.

If ya can't beat 'em, join 'em. Or something like that.

4) All this got Christmas into trouble later on, when the Protestants took over England and discontinued Christmas in 1647, on the grounds that it was bogus and decadent. Maybe if they hadn't done that, they wouldn't have been overthrown by royalists who reinstated Christmas, along with King Charles II, in 1660.

"Bring me some friggin' eggnog."

5) Colonial America wasn't too keen on Christmas either, on account of having been settled by a load of Puritans who didn't go in for such humbug. While Americans in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New York happily celebrated Christmas in colonial years, residents of other areas didn't celebrate Christmas at all until late in the 19th century. After the American Revolution, Christmas celebrations lost their luster for most Americans, who saw the holiday as a symbol of British rule.

Christmas came back to the States slowly, and largely due to literary depictions in works by Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and, you guessed it, Charles Dickens. By 1860, fourteen states (and remember, there were a lot fewer of them back then) had declared Christmas an official holiday. On 26 June 1870, the Christmas became a US federal holiday. Today, 91% of Americans claim to celebrate Christmas, including 55% of American atheists.

Atheists like presents, too.