Editor's Note: Updated 22.12.20
Christmas is a time steeped in traditions and customs that vary around the world; many with such historical roots we've probably forgotten how they all originated.
There's plenty of food trivia to discover about festive time, from the feasting to the singing; here are 14 fun facts about Christmas, from the historical to the unusual, which you can recount to guests in an idle moment in between basting the turkey and pulling crackers.
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14 Fun Facts about Christmas
1. The Big Christmas Feast
Think your Christmas dinner is a challenge? Try tackling this; In the year 1213, King John of England ordered ordered 3,000 capons, 1,000 salted eels, 400 hogs, 24 casks of wine and much much more for his Christmas dinner, making the Duke of Northumberland's Christmas menu in 1512 of 5 swans seem rather modest. In 1580 Christmas feasts were back on par with Sir William Petrie ordering 17 oxen, 14 steers, 29 calves, 5 hogs, 13 bucks, 54 lambs, 129 sheep and one ton of cheese. Discover the Christmas feast in art and learn how to cook a whole succulent turkey.
2. In Japan, book a table at KFC
On 25 December Japanese flock to the American fast food chain KFC in Tokyo thanks to the impact of a "Kentucky for Christmas" marketing campaign that hit about 40 years ago. The tradition is so popular in fact that diners book ahead by a couple of months to secure a seat to enjoy a bucket of fried chicken.
3. Egg Nogg, the drink of nobles
Eggnog, or crow's milk, is a Christmas alcoholic beverage that was borne from English aristocrats. The first eggnog seems to have been sipped in 1607 in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia (USA).
4. Cookies for Santa
Both in the US and in places across Europe children leave cookies and warm milk as light refreshment for Santa Claus during his long night of delivering presents. The tradition began from another custom: when Christmas trees used to be decorated with food. In the past, especially in Germany, apples, cookies and other food were used to decorate the festive tree: some of these decorations, however, disappeared during the night, or rather, were devoured. This led to speculation that it was Santa looking from some late-night snacks when leaving the children their presents.
5. In Chile They Start to Eat at Dawn
Most of us are familiar with Christmas lunch getting later than intended, but how about starting at dawn?! This is what happens in Chile, South America, when lunch (or dinner?) starts at dawn on 25 December, after the traditional Misa del Gallo, or Mass.
6. The Real Story Behind the Gingerbread House
The history of gingerbread dates back to 992, when the bread and cakes were seasoned with spices from the East. But the ginger came only later thanks to a bishop. Find out why here.
7. Jingle Bells was Originally for Thanksgiving
This popular festive song is inescapable come the holiday season. Interestingly it was originally written to commemorate American Thanksgiving when it was written in 1850 by composer James Lord Pierpont Find out more at Martha Stewart. Unusually it was also the first song broadcasted from space on December 16, 1965.
8. Underneath the Mistletoe
Whether you carefully manoeuvre yourself under the mistletoe or away from it, a sneaky Christmas kiss under the mistletoe is a yuletide tradition that has been around for centuries. However, mistletoe berries, whilst notoriously poisonous, were once considered an aphrodisiac and are still a symbol of fertility and virility, consider yourself warned!
9. Brussel sprouts love them or hate them
The Brussel sprout, which are widely grown in Belgium and the Benelux countries only became a staple of the Christmas dinner table in the Victorian era.
It is thought that the Victorians simply liked the idea of eating mini cabbages and as they became popular in Britain towards the end of the 1800s, just when the modern feasting traditions of Christmas were being formed, the Brussels sprout is a food trend of that era that simply never went away, much to the delight of some and the disgust of others.
10. Mince pies, where’s the beef?
It is thought that Britain first encountered the ingredients for the mince pie when the crusaders return from their wars in the Middle East and Asia, bring with the exotic fruits and spices. The tradition of the mince pie is possibly directly related to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia when Roman fathers in the Vatican were presented with sweetmeats. In any case, the spices and fruits brought by the crusaders were symbolic of the gifts present to the baby Jesus by the three Magi.
The early pies did indeed contain meat, while in more modern times shredded beef or mutton was eschewed in favour of suet. Some traditional pies in the US still contained minced meat. Even though there pie filling today may be vegetarian it is still known as ‘minced meat’. The original mince pies were topped with a pastry baby Jesus.
11. Leftover peacock sandwiches?
Peacock was actually the mainstay of Medieval Christmas feasting, as was swan and other games.
Later in Edwardian Britain, the goose became the bird of choice before Turkey began to be the meat most sought after for the centre of the Christmas table.
12. Stir it up, little pudding
The precursor to the Christmas pudding was a 14th-century porridge called 'frumenty' that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. By the 17th century, the pudding as we know it today was widely eaten.
It was traditionally made at the start of advent to allow the alcohol and flavours to develop. A tradition of ‘Stir-it-up-Sunday’ when each member of the household stirred the mixture while facing east to Bethlehem and making a wish was also practised. Most likely as a way of getting more muscle power to mix through the heavy mixture.
13. Cranberry Sauce is not Berry Popular
First eaten by people in North America to accompany their Thanksgiving turkey, the tradition spread, with the turkey, to Europe.
In the US the sauce tends to be very sweet while in Europe it is a much tarter affair. Despite it being every present with turkey it turns out that many American actually detest it. A poll conducted this year around Thanksgiving saw that 29% of Americans hate cranberry sauce, but eat it anyway.
14. Mulled Wine
Today mulled wine is a warm glass of festive cheer and it was popularised by the Victorians. Charles Dickens writes of a spiced wine called “Smoking Bishop” and later Mrs Beeton describes using spices to “mull wine”.
Warm wine originated with the ancient Romans who drank it to ward of the effects of a cold winter, later though the practice mostly evolved as a way of masking the flavour of spoilt or cheap wine.
Take a look at even more festive food trivia in the video below, where you'll learn where candy canes came from and more: