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24-25 December


“By far and away the best day we have”

Growing up in America, Christmases in our house were always very “lively”, says Bill Bryson in his new audiobook The Secret History of Christmas. This was because whenever my father put up the Christmas tree lights, “there would be a terrific bang, a searing flash of light”, and he would be thrown “backward, at speed, on a more or less horizontal trajectory”. This, of course, was back when the lights had “bulbs the size of acorns” and the wires “positively crackled with energy”. Sometimes, if we were lucky, his body would “light up like a medical X-ray”. After all that, Christmas Day was “something of an anticlimax”. Americans don’t take it that seriously anyway – we’re generally still full from Thanksgiving. Plus, where I lived there was “always about six feet of snow outside”, so if you got a bicycle or roller skates all you could do was “ride around in tiny circles in the living room”.

Long reads shortened

The medieval origins of the Christmas tree

Evergreen conifers are “among our oldest tree species”, says Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker. “Picture a serene triceratops crunching on a pine tree and you won’t be too far off.” Exactly when people started decorating them for Christmas isn’t clear. We know that in 1419, in the German city of Freiburg, a tree was set up in a hospital and adorned with “apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel”. In Riga, in 1510, a group of merchants decorated a tree with thread and straw, then burned it at Lent. But the term “Christmas tree” wasn’t written down until 1611, in a ban on felling trees in the Alsatian town of Turckheim.

Inside politics

In 1961, after overhearing her parents discuss a possible Soviet nuclear test at the North Pole, eight-year-old Michelle Rochon wrote a letter asking President John F Kennedy to step in “because they will kill Santa Claus”. “I share your concern about the atmospheric testing of the Soviet Union,” he wrote back, “not only for Santa Claus but for people throughout the world.” “However,” he continued, “you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds again this Christmas.”


You may think of Jingle Bells as the quintessential Christmas tune, says The Sydney Morning Herald, but it was originally written as a Thanksgiving song entitled The One Horse Open Sleigh. At some point Americans started singing it at Christmas too, “and that tradition caught on, to put it mildly”. As for Good King Wenceslas, he wasn’t the “grey-bearded oldster” we assume – “the real Wenceslas died unexpectedly in his twenties when his brother murdered him with a lance”. Which isn’t very festive at all.

Eating in

Gen Z is cancelling Christmas pudding. Almost half of under 25s say they don’t like the dessert, despite more than a third having never tried it. According to researchers, it means the festive food could be extinct by 2025. I don’t know what I find more alarming, says Hannah Twiggs in The Independent: that people are surprised teenagers “don’t want a boiled fruit cake on Christmas Day”, or that the blame for young people killing stuff off has finally passed to Gen Z. “We ageing millennials carried the torch for so long – now we’re just as overlooked as Gen X and the boomers.”

Quirk of history

Compared to the cheery cards of today, Victorian designs were “downright creepy”, says Mental Floss. Among the weirdest scenes depicted: a lobster-riding mouse, humans emerging from the stomachs of evil snowmen, and a frog making off with a moneybag after murdering his pal. Particularly popular were images of dead robins, which to 19th-century folk signalled good luck for the coming year.


Quoted Larkin 24.12.22

“What an awful time of year this is! Just as one is feeling that if one can just hold on, it won’t get any worse, then all this Christmas idiocy bursts upon one like a slavering Niagara of nonsense and completely wrecks one’s entire frame. This means, in terms of my life, making a point of buying about six simple inexpensive presents when there are rather more people about than usual, and going home. No doubt in terms of yours it means seeing your house given over to hoards of mannerless middle-class brats and your good food and drink vanishing into the quacking tooth-equipped jaws of their alleged parents. Yours is the harder course, I can see. On the other hand, mine is happening to me.”

Philip Larkin, in a letter to art historian Judy Egerton


Every Christmas, the North American Aerospace Defence Command swaps monitoring the skies for missile threats for tracking Santa’s present-delivering progress. More than 1,500 staff members and volunteers stand by to field phone calls from inquisitive children, with Norad’s website also offering updates. The tradition began in 1955, when a child attempting to talk to Father Christmas dialled a misprinted number on a department store advert, and ended up talking to Colonel Harry Shoup, a US Air Force commander watching for Soviet air raids. Shoup played along, telling the child he was indeed Santa, and more calls soon followed.

Quirk of history

Scotland used to barely celebrate Christmas at all, says Allan Massie in The Oldie. When I was a child in the 1940s, Christmas Day wasn’t a public holiday; people went to work in factories and shipyards, and banks were open until midday. “It goes back to the Reformation,” when Scotland broke with Catholic doctrine much more comprehensively than England did. Anything that “smacked of Papist idolatry” was banned – Christmas celebrations included. This hardline stance had softened by the 20th century, but Hogmanay – New Year’s Eve – was still the “great winter festival”. What finally won Scots over were the Christmas-themed television programmes broadcast across the whole of Britain.

Eating in

For anyone wondering why brussels sprouts have a reputation for being disgusting, says Mental Floss, the answer is weirdly simple: they “really did used to taste worse”. In the late 1960s, the industry switched over to mechanised harvesting, which required a plant that would “mature fairly evenly over the entire stem”, explains farmer Steve Bontadelli. The sprouts that were easiest to harvest with machines were “horribly bitter”, he says, “and we turned off an entire generation”. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of Dutch biotechnologists pinpointed the chemical compounds behind the sprout’s unsavoury taste, and set out on a years-long mission to breed a new strain that was both easy to pick and “not too bitter”. Their success helped catapult the once-maligned vegetable to its present “culinary stardom”.


Whatever the “tsunami of television adverts” might suggest, says Nell Frizzell in The Guardian, affection doesn’t have to be shown through expensive Christmas gifts. “There will always be things you can offer friends and relatives that don’t involve shopping.” Fix the worn-out things in their house; paint their ceilings; do some repairs on their bike. Suggest a house swap for your next holiday, or cook meals for their freezer. And childcare “is a gift beyond riches”, especially if you can offer something overnight. None of this needs to be “twee, performative or smug” – it’s simply about “showing the people you love that you have thought about them”. And there are better ways to do that than buying them “a set of egg cups and a portable speaker in the shape of a butt plug”.

Eating in

In a competition to identify America’s best gingerbread house, says Food & Wine magazine, the top prize went to a scene showing Santa visiting Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. Other winners included an ornately decorated edible clock, and a patriotic effort featuring political landmarks including the White House and the Statue of Liberty. “All entries had to be 100% edible, and composed of at least 75% gingerbread.”


Quoted Montaigne 24.12.22

“Don’t discuss yourself, for you are bound to lose. If you belittle yourself, you are believed. If you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.”

Michel de Montaigne