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32 Things You Didn’t Know About the Holiday Season

With these fun holiday facts, you'll be the best conversationalist at all of this year's holiday parties.

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Why December has so many holidays

While there’s no single explanation, many experts agree that December holidays date back to ancient celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year but also marks a sort of “birth of light”—because every day after that grows slightly longer for the next six months. The winter solstice occurs in the third week of December. When the Christian religion began celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ at the end of the third century AD, it is believed that church officials settled on December 25 in order to coincide with existing pagan festivals surrounding the solstice, thus making it easier to convince the pagan worshipers to accept Christianity.

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Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas

Because Hanukkah and Christmas tend to fall around the same time of year, people often wonder if Hanukkah is a Jewish version of Christmas. At least religiously speaking, it is not.

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah (the spelling of which we will discuss below) has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, and the event it commemorates—the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, where the Jews had successfully risen up against their oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt—occurred a couple of hundred years before Jesus’s birth. Hanukkah is often referred to as the “Festival of Lights” because according to the Talmud (one of the Jewish religion’s central texts), when the Jews took back their Temple after the battle, they had only enough oil left to keep the lights burning for a single day—and yet, miraculously, the lights burned bright for another eight nights, thus leaving time to locate a fresh supply of oil.

The Hanukkah celebration involves the lighting and blessing of a nine-branched candelabra known as a menorah or a hanukkiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added and lit; the ninth candle (called the “shamash”) is the helper candle that is used to light all the others. Hanukkah doesn’t even necessarily take place in December. It always begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which can fall anywhere from late November to late December in the secular calendar.

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But you’re right to see the similarities

Jews have always celebrated the rededication of the temple and the miracle of the lights, although that celebration bore no resemblance to Christmas until the late 1800s. That’s when two rabbis in Cincinnati intentionally brought a Christmas-y feel to the festivities. Growing concerned that Jewish children seemed increasingly disconnected to their religion, they developed a new celebration for children during Hanukkah that included giving presents. National newspapers publicized this, and in no time, the Jewish community in America had reshaped Hanukkah as something children and their families could celebrate while other American families were celebrating Christmas. It also became a way for the Jewish community to feel a part of something so culturally significant in America. You’ll definitely want to try these fun and easy Hanukkah crafts.

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So how do you spell that anyway?

There is no right way to spell Hanukkah. That’s because it’s a Hebrew word, and Hebrew uses an entirely different alphabet and includes some entirely different sounds from the English alphabet. Spelling the word in English involves the process of “transliteration,” which means changing the letters of a word into the most closely corresponding characters of another language. Transliteration is an imprecise art, at best, and Hanukkah presents at least two examples of why:

  • The first sound is not actually “ha,” which involves expelling a puff of air from the mouth while the tongue stays out of the way. Rather, it involves placing the rear of the tongue lightly on the roof of the mouth, which creates a sound that is not spellable using the English alphabet. Some try by spelling the first sound as “Cha.” Others feel that the “ch” can be confused with the “Ch” in Christmas or in lunch.
  • The “k” sound toward the end of the word is easily spelled with a single “k,” but some prefer to spell it with “kk” in order to distinguish it from an English word (which has no “kk”).

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Kwanzaa is celebrated in addition to Christmas

Kwanzaa is a secular (non-religious) festival observed by many African Americans from December 26 to January 1 as a celebration of their cultural heritage and traditional values. Kwanzaa is celebrated by African Americans of all faiths. Those who are Christian may observe it in addition to Christmas.

Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga (a black nationalist who later became a college professor) in 1966 as a way of uniting and empowering the African African community in the aftermath of the deadly Watts riots in Los Angeles. Having modeled his holiday on traditional African harvest festivals, he took the name “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” The extra “a” was added, Karenga has said, simply to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, each of whom wanted to represent a letter. But there may be something more to the number “seven” than that (see below).

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The number 7 comes up a lot in Kwanzaa

There are seven principles and seven primary symbols that emphasize a unique set of values and ideals during the seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa, which is spelled with seven letters.

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Speaking of numbers…let’s talk about the number 3,473

The holidays are a major source of weird world records. For example:

The largest gathering of people wearing holiday sweaters is 3,473, recorded at the University of Kansas on December 19, 2015, when that many people wore brightly colored sweaters to the men’s basketball game against Montana.

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The number 559

The largest display of lit Christmas trees was recorded on November 2, 2015, when the Hallmark Channel lit 559 Christmas trees in New York City’s Herald Square. Now, imagine if no one bothered to take down these lights? Make sure you avoid these 18 holiday decorating mistakes you didn’t know you were making.

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The number 6,400

Jelly doughnuts are a traditional Hanukkah treat. The biggest pile of these delicious treats was recorded on the first night of Hanukkah of 1997, when a 12-foot high pyramid made of 6,400 jelly doughnuts (called “soufganiyot” in Hebrew), was erected near the Israeli town of Afula. Afterwards, the doughnuts were distributed to Israeli soldiers serving along the border with Lebanon.

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The numbers 1 and 2 (diaper alert)

New Year’s Eve brings a lot of revelers to Times Square every year; a record million were expected for last year’s festivities. And a lot of them are wearing diapers. No, we’re not talking about babies here. We’re talking about adults. Apparently, due to a lack of toilets, some adults wear diapers while ringing in the new year in Times Square.

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But please let’s not discuss 1752

Prior to the year 1753, Britain and all British countries celebrated the New Year on March 25 (Annunciation Day). Now that part’s not really difficult to process, but here’s what might be: In order for 1753 to begin on January 1, 1753, along with every other country in the world (except Ethiopia; see below), the year 1752 had to literally skip over all the dates from January 1 through March 24 and also September 3 and 13. Thus, 1752 only lasted nine months.

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Ethiopia has a totally different New Year’s Day

Ethiopia is the only country in the world that hasn’t adopted the 12-month calendar that is sometimes referred to as the Gregorian calendar. Ethiopia uses the Coptic Calendar, which has 13 months, of which 12 are comprised of 30 days each, and a 13th month at the end of the year that has 5 days (or 6 days, if it’s a leap year). The result is that Ethiopia celebrates the New Year on September 11. Here are 27 inspiring New Year’s resolutions you’ll want to keep.

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In Korea, New Year’s Day is your birthday

In Korea, everyone’s birthday is New Year’s Day, regardless of the day anyone was actually born. Plus, the day you’re born, you’re considered to be 1 year old, so no matter what day you were born, you will be considered 2 years old on the first New Year’s Day of your life. Thus, if you are born on December 31, you will be considered 2 years old the next day.

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In Japan, if it’s Christmas, you’re eating KFC

It’s a time-honored tradition to eat fried chicken on Christmas in Japan. Starting in 1974, Kentucky Fried Chicken got in on the action by asking the people of Japan to show thanks for Christmas by enjoying a bucket of KFC. People in Japan order up their finger-licking-good Christmas chicken months in advance—to the tune of about 3,000,000 orders of KFC each year.

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If it’s Christmas in Peru, consider the first rule of Fight Club

Takanakuy is a festival that is held every Christmas Day in the Chumbivilcas Province of Peru. The festival consists of dancing and fist-fighting, whether to settle old conflicts or simply to display their manhood.

Here in the U.S., we try to avoid fighting on the holidays (theoretically), although it’s not always easy since family members seem to know exactly what to say to get under our skin (how do they DO that?). Find out how to deal with awkward family encounters on the holidays.

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On Christmas in Ecuador, keep gifts to a minimum

For the most part, children in Ecuador don’t expect to be showered with gifts on holidays. Rather, they tend to get one or two gifts selected especially for them. And not because they’re naughty or nice, but just because they’re loved. Check out these 10 gift-giving etiquette rules for the holiday season.

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If it’s New Year’s in Thailand, bring a towel

Thailand’s New Year celebration, Songkran is a beloved nationwide celebration where water fights go on for days. Literally, three days. The name comes from Sanskrit and means transformation. Before water guns ever were a thing, the Thai people went to their local temples to engage in spiritual cleansing. They still head to their temples to bathe sacred Buddha statues for good luck. But along the way, it’s a party atmosphere as everyone’s dousing everyone else in water.

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Moonpies over Mobile to ring in the new year

Since New Year’s Eve 2008, the city of Mobile, Alabama, raises a 12-foot tall lighted mechanical Moon Pie to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Over 50,000 people are on hand to party the night away as they await the main event: ringing in the new year when the giant Moon Pie drops at midnight, along with a laser show and fireworks. Check out some of the best New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world.

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New Year’s Eve = Toss a Toaster Day in Johannesberg

On New Year’s Eve, residents in a small neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, collect old appliances, carry them up to apartment building rooftops and toss them down to the streets far below.

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New Year’s Eve = Destroy a Dish Day in Denmark

In Denmark, folks ring in the New Year by shattering dishes across the doors of houses of their family and friends. This is true in the Netherlands too. We assume (or at least, hope) that the dishes are ones the New Year’s revelers don’t mind losing because smashing a dish is pretty much irreversible. Here are more lucky New Year’s traditions from around the world.

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New Year’s Eve = Stuff Your Face Day in Spain

In Spain, the New Year’s tradition for good luck revolves around grapes. If you can manage to stuff 12 grapes in your mouth at midnight you’ve achieved good luck for the next year.

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Krampus was the original Bad Santa

Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who serves as the anti-Santa in a number of European countries (including Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary), encouraging children to behave themselves, lest they be beaten with chains, stuffed in a bag, and taken to the underworld. Krampus is a little less scary in the American movie version, which premiered in 2015 and blended lots of comedy with the horror. If you’re more into feel-good Christmas stories, then you’ll want to read these wonderfully inspiring stories of Christmas love.

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Santa may have had some work done

Don’t call the tabloids, but let’s just say that Santa has changed quite a bit since his days as the actual person who became St. Nicholas. That guy was a Greek man born in the third century AD, and was a “fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine” who nevertheless became a patron saint of children around the year 1200.

Scary at first and sometimes seen carrying a rod (which he would “spare not,” as it was threatened by parents), St. Nicholas began the transformation in 1822 into the plump, red-cheeked, jolly, reindeer-sleigh-driving gift giver that he remains today, thanks to Clement Clark having described him as such in his poem, The Night Before Christmas.

By the end of the 1800s, the image of St. Nicholas (say it out loud: Saint Nick Claus…Santa Claus) had become standardized as a large adult man, dressed in red with white fur trim, venturing out from the North Pole on a reindeer-driven sleigh, and benevolently keeping an eye on children everywhere, making certain they’re not naughty, but nice. Here are 11 gentle ways to break the news about Santa to your kids.

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Seeing double? You might be at SantaCon

SantaCon is an annual pub-crawl that takes place in various cities around the world, in which people come dressed as Santa Claus (or sometimes as other Christmas characters). New York City is the largest SantaCon venue. Not only are the streets filled with Santas, but the Santas all tend to be soused.

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Boxing Day has nothing to do with prize-fighting

Boxing Day is an English tradition the day after Christmas. It got its name because it’s the day on which families would literally “open the box” (the alms box) to the poor. Traditionally, every church in England had an alms box, into which people would place money intended for donation. The box was opened on Boxing Day, and the contents were distributed to those less fortunate in the parish. The tradition continues today. Don’t miss these 11 tips for dealing with holiday stress and anxiety.

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Other December holidays you may not know existed

If Boxing Day is a new one for you, you’ll probably be surprised to hear that these December holidays exist:

  • Bathtub Party Day: This holiday falls on December 5, which is also the day Prohibition was repealed, so perhaps it actually refers to the “End of Bathtub Gin” Party Day.
  • Cotton Candy Day: Invented in 1897 and originally marketed as “fairy floss,” cotton candy first became popular at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and was renamed in the 1920s. Why it falls on December 7 remains a mystery.
  • National Flashlight Day: Falling on December 21, we imagine it has something to do with lighting the way during the Winter Solstice.
  • Festivus: This holiday for “the rest of us” arrived in popular culture in the 1990s thanks to the television show, Seinfeld, but it’s really been a thing since 1966.

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Festivus was invented for TV

Festivus is a non-traditional holiday whose slogan is “A Festivus for the rest of us.” Festivus traditions include:

  • Gathering ’round an unadorned metal pole
  • Airing grievances in a ceremony aptly called, the “Airing of Grievances” (is it wrong that we’re reminded of Takanakuy just a little?)
  • Feats of Strength, in which “the head of the household must be pinned” (wrestling-like)

Most people believe Festivus originated on the Season 9 episode of Seinfeld entitled, “The Strike,” which first aired on December 18, 1997. However, the holiday was actually invented in 1966 in the household of Dan O’Keefe, the television writer credited with writing the episode. Humblebrag: Dan O’Keefe was, at the time, an editor of Reader’s Digest. Here are more Festivus facts you never knew.

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There are three most covered Christmas tunes

Some Christmas songs never seem to get old. Of the 24 most-covered Christmas songs, none has been covered fewer than 7,000 times. The top three are:

  • Silent Night: Written in 1818, there are 26,496 versions
  • White Christmas: Written in 1940, there are 20,721 versions
  • Jingle Bells: Written in 1857, there are 19,080 versions

These are the 20 best Christmas songs of all time.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn’t happen

One of the most beloved holiday specials of all time is A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it took ages before television executives could even convince Charles Schulz to get into the animation game. When it finally got made, CBS executives hated it so much that they almost nixed it. Execs from the sponsor, Coca Cola, hated it too upon their first viewing.

Lucky for fans of Peanuts Gang television specials everywhere, A Charlie Brown Christmas made it to the airwaves anyway, premiering on December 9, 1965. That night, it was seen by approximately half of all American households that owned a television. It’s been a holiday entertainment staple ever since, and 44 more Peanuts Gang specials have been made for television.

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A Christmas Story had humble beginnings

The movie, A Christmas Story, has become a Christmas classic, but when it opened the week before Thanksgiving 1983, it appeared on fewer than 900 screens. Thanks to the advent of home video and cable television, it slowly made its way into the mainstream until 1988, when cable network TNT aired its first 12-showing, 24-hour marathon, imbuing the film with cult status. The annual marathon is now on TBS and attracts more than 40 million viewers each year. Here are some other ways that people celebrate Christmas around the world.

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Can you guess the most popular Hanukka and Kwanzaa movies?

No? Didn’t think so. That’s because there are none, at least in the mainstream (the Hebrew Hammer is a Hanukkah-themed independent live-action feature film). The only two mainstream Hanukkah feature films are animated: Eight Crazy Nights and An American Tail. The only Kwanzaa film that’s been made so far is The Black Candle, a documentary.

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It’s a Wonderful Life was deemed un-American by the FBI

For the first 10 years after it premiered in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life, that sweet and seemingly guileless Christmas classic, was on the FBI’s radar as suspected Communist propaganda—because it (supposedly) tended to make bankers seem like jerks. It was exonerated in 1956. We don’t care what those government guys said. We’ve always loved it, even back when it was blacklisted. Next, read up on the 40 best Christmas movies of all time—ranked.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.