Christmas Answers

by Deb on December 23, 2011

Christmas Answers

A good way to finish posting before Christmas with a bit of Christmas trivia.

1.     Reindeer are Rangifer tarandus. There are 8 or 9 subspecies, some of which are threatened or extinct, but as a species they are relatively numerous. Reindeer are the same animal as Caribou, just the European name. I never realised that.

Those reindeer are called Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Except originally it was Dunder and Blixem. And seeing they are usually depicted with antlers, they must be girls, castrated or too young to be pulling a sleigh – adult male reindeer in Scandinavia lose their antlers in December.

2.     Xmas is not some new fandangled laziness or trying to take Christ out of Christmas. X is an extremely old and venerable abbreviation for Christ, except it’s not really X. It’s actually the Greek letter Chi (Kai) and is the first letter of Christ in Greek. Together with Rho it has been used as the Christogram, or symbol of Christ, for over 1500 years.

It is used in art, church vestments, was the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and is used by the Catholic Church. It was also used as an abbreviation in parish records, where there are names recorded as ‘Xtopher.’ In fact, the X in Xmas is far older – Christ is the barbaric new language used by these modern hooligans.

3.     I actually mean the Solstice on December 22nd (yesterday). The official beginning of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere, there are archaeological sites linked with the solstice that are thousands of years old. Given the amount of effort involved with many of these constructions it’s safe to assume the Solstice was very important, the shortest day when the sun begins to return. Co-opting existing celebrations probably had a lot to do with setting the date of Christmas.

Speculation on the Star of Bethlehem is also a perennial favourite at Christmas. I have to say I don’t really like my own opinion on this one. It would be so nice if the Star was a planetary conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova. But I have to admit I don’t think it exists.  I always enjoyed a good historical hunt, until I read someone (I think it was Stephen J. Gould) pointing out that before you hunt for something you should see what evidence there is for it. And seeing there are no reports from non-European sources of strange things in the sky and it isn’t even in all the gospels, which weren’t written until much later anyway, it’s probably just an embellishment. What a pity.

4.     There have been all sorts of things added to Christmas puddings over the years. We are mostly familiar with the sixpence, it’s fallen out of favour because modern coins have a lower silver content and so aren’t as safe to cook.

  • Every member of the family should stir the bowl from east to west for the three kings.
  • Sixpence is for wealth.
  • A small silver wishbone is for luck.
  • A wedding ring means the finder will get married this year.
  • A button is for a batchelor.
  • A thimble is for a spinster.
  • In an older tradition, a bean would be cooked in and whoever found it would be the family guardian angel for the year.

5.     The picture above is one species of Mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite, rather than growing into the earth it puts its roots into another tree or bush and uses their water and nutrients, but with evergreen leaves to produce their own energy. Although life as a parasite sounds bad, mistletoes are actually keystone species and can have positive effects on biodiversity. Birds are attracted to nest in and eat the berries, and then pollinate and spread other species as well.

Mistletoe was important in Druidic festivals and in pre-Christian Celtic cultures was seen as representing the essence of males. It has been linked with fertility as well. Somehow this turned into the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe in about the 16th century.

And I’ll leave you with my absolute alltime favourite Christmas song. Whatever your religion or beliefs, hold your families tight and raise a glass. Have a great Christmas season.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

@teachingkidsfun December 23, 2011 at 7:16 am

ScienceMum Nice article! Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen…and Rudolph too!

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Lori Pott via Facebook December 23, 2011 at 10:03 am

That’s my favorite Xmas song too! Totally sums up Christmas for me and makes me cry every time!

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Veronica December 23, 2011 at 11:59 am

I didn’t know about the Xmas thing. But now I’m really amused, because I’ve seen people being a bit up themselves and declaring that they “call it Xmas, because we’re not religious” which is fine (neither am I) but I LOVE that Xmas is no more, nor any less “Christ-y” that Christmas.
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Sian Morton via Facebook December 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm

And mine.

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Science@home via Facebook December 23, 2011 at 9:07 pm

I cry just talking about it *blush*

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Diana Grant December 30, 2011 at 5:20 am

Yes you are right Deb! No matter what are your beliefs, Christmas have to be celebrated with love. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone…
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