As we begin this advent season, I have been surprised by the lack of Christmas literacy among my friends and coworkers. To help combat this problem, I am providing a basic list of Christmas words, films, books, and knowledge that I think all people should have. This is in no way a comprehensive list, but rather one that came to me during my morning commute.
Seasons and Days
Advent. This is the season that begins four Sundays before Christmas. All those who grew up at BPC knows that Advent means “He’s coming!” (who is coming?) “Jesus!”. It is a season of preparation and anticipation of the coming Messiah. December, and often parts of late November are not “the holiday season” or even “the Christmas season”, but rather, “the season of Advent” which culminates in Christmas.
Christmas day. Right. So you probably know this one. This is the day that we celebrate the birth of Christ. However, Christ was very likely not born on December 25. Back in the day, Pope Julius decided to make Christmas a permanent holiday (rather than a moving feast) and settled on December 25. This coincided with the pagan Winter Solstice, and most think that this day was chosen so that the Christian holiday would replace the pagan one.
The Twelve Days of Christmas. In spite of the common misperception that these are the 12 days leading up to Christmas, they are in fact the 12 days following Christmas. According to the Church calendar, there are 12 days between Christmas day and the beginning of Epiphany, typically the longest season of the Church, leading up to Easter. Epiphany begins on January 6, and is often used to celebrate the day that the Wise Men came with their gifts to Jesus. January 5th is referred to as the “twelfth night”. Shakespeare’s comedy by the same name was likely written as entertainment for this last day of the Christmas celebrations. For those who are wondering, the 12 gifts listed in the popular song are: 1 partridge in a pear tree, 2 turtle doves, 3 french hens, 4 calling birds, 5 golden rings, 6 geese (a-laying) 7 swans (a-swimming), 8 maids (a-milking) 9 ladies (dancing) 10 lords (a-leaping), 11 pipers (piping) and 12 drummers (drumming).
Dear Virginia. Okay. Not a book. This is a reference to an editorial written in the New York Sun in 1897 in response to 8-year old Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter to the editor asking if Santa was real. You can read the whole editorial here, but memorable lines from this include:
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
This editorial is also referenced in many films, including Prancer and Miracle on 34th Street.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. This is a poem written by Clement C. Moore and published in 1823. Among other things, this poem is credited with establishing a common idea for what Santa Claus looks like (droll little mouth, little round belly, beard on his chin as white as the snow, etc). The names of Santa’s eight reindeer also seem to receive their origins from this poem: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.
A Christmas Carol. Oh Dickens. So great. There are nearly too many Christmas references from this book to name. To start with, it has been turned into dozens of different film adaptation, ranging from the very literal to more fanciful interpretations. Some notable characters include: Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist of the story who is a stingy old man until he is visited by 3 spirits representing the past, present and future, and is given a chance to continue his life on a different course. Tiny Tim, the sick son of Scrooge’s employee who is a source of inspiration throughout the book. Mr. Fezziwig, the jovial first employer of Scrooge who loves Christmas and throws a huge party every year; Sam Adams has currently named a Christmas ale after him (good stuff).
How The Grinch Stole Christmas. A short book written by Dr. Seuss that has also been turned into numerous films. The Grinch is a horrible man (creature) who steals all the presents from the homes in Whoville, until he hears the residents of Whoville singing. He thinks for a while until he realizes:
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day!
It’s a Wonderful Life. Staring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, this story follows the life of George Bailey who, as an adult, feels like his life was a failure and, with the help of an angel named Clarence, has a chance to see what his world would be like if he had never been born. He realizes that he really has “had a wonderful life!” and returns to his family and friends a changed man. Some things to know about the film: Sesame Street got the names “Bert and Ernie” from the policeman and cab driver in this film. The expression “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings” comes from this film. Also, my father does a fantastic impression of Nick, the bartender during part of this film. You should ask to hear it.
Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This 1964 stop-motion film is a classic in my household. You should know that the snowman in this film is narrated by Burl Ives, and the snowman in Elf is a reference to this.
Miracle on 34th Street. This film actually centers around the Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, which traditionally ends with Santa Claus. The miracle is that the Macy’s Santa is declared to be the real Santa, restoring people’s Christmas spirit.
White Christmas. The song White Christmas actually originated in the film “Holiday Inn”. The two films both star Bing Crosby, and he sings this song in both films.
So again, not a comprehensive list. Please feel free to add your own Christmas facts that will help raise Christmas literacy. And enjoy this advent season! Maybe get off the computer and write some Christmas cards, or decorate your tree, or have people over and watch any of these films, or snuggle up with your favorite winter beverage and brush up on the books listed. Or just rest. Advent is good for that, too.