Featuring 180 questions – both new and previously included in the BBC television programme’s popular ‘General Ignorance’ round – the book explores historical topics from the Vikings to the Vietnam War.
Here we bring you five festive facts taken from the book…
1) Prince Albert didn’t bring the first Christmas tree to Britain
The first Christmas tree in England went up in December 1800, when Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, gave a children’s party. One of the grown-up guests remarked, ‘After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.’
Christmas trees soon became wildly fashionable in high society, but it took 40 years (helped by the popular press) for them to catch on across the country. By then Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was busy importing them, which is why they are so often associated with him.
The royal Christmas tree is admired by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children, in this December 1848 illustration. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Prince Albert and Queen Charlotte were both born in Germany, where families had been bringing evergreen trees indoors and putting candles on them since the sixteenth century. According to legend, the first person to do this was Martin Luther (1483–1546), better known for his role in the Protestant Reformation. One evening, it’s said, he looked up at the night sky, saw the stars twinkling between a tree’s branches, and decided to recreate the effect in his home. Luther was a controversial figure. He was also said to eat a spoonful of his own faeces every day. The Christmas tree story may be romantic fiction, but the German tradition of decorating trees indoors did begin in Luther’s lifetime.
Artificial Christmas trees became popular in Britain after the death of Queen Victoria, when large ostentatious trees suddenly seemed inappropriate. The first ones were made from goose feathers that were dyed green. These were also imported from Germany, where they had become fashionable as a way of conserving the country’s fir tree population. But artificial Christmas trees only took off in the 1930s with mass production by the Addis Brush Company. Founded by William Addis, inventor of the toothbrush, they used the same machinery to make bristly branches that they used to make toilet brushes.
Today artificial Christmas trees are seen as an environmentally conscious alternative to the real thing. Unfortunately, an independent study released in 2009 showed that, to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree each year, you would have to reuse your plastic tree for more than 20 years.
2) ‘Jingle Bells’ wasn’t originally written as a Christmas song
‘Jingle Bells’ is the only Christmas song that doesn’t mention Christmas, Jesus or the Nativity. That’s because it was written to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Originally entitled ‘The One-Horse Open Sleigh’, ‘Jingle Bells’ was the work of American composer James Lord Pierpont (1822–93), uncle of the financier J. P. Morgan. Pierpont’s father commissioned it for a Thanksgiving service.
Pierpont led a wild life – at 14 he ran away to sea and joined a whaling ship. At 27 he left his wife and children in Boston to join the California gold rush. After re-inventing himself as a photographer, he lost all his possessions in a fire and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he joined the Confederate army during the Civil War. Throughout this period he continued to write songs, ballads and dance tunes, including Confederate battle hymns and ‘minstrel’ songs for performance by white people with blacked-up faces. Some of his less festive tunes include ‘We Conquer or Die’ and ‘Strike for the South’.
The states of Massachusetts and Georgia both claim Pierpont was there when he wrote ‘Jingle Bells’ in 1857. Wherever he was, he made very little money out of it and never lived to see his song’s enormous popularity.
‘Jingle Bells’ was the first tune played live in space. On 16 December 1965, as US astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were preparing to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gemini VI, Stafford contacted Mission Control to report a UFO. ‘We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit . . . Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon . . . I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.’ Before Houston could respond, Schirra began playing ‘Jingle Bells’ on a harmonica he’d smuggled aboard in his spacesuit. He was accompanied by Stafford on sleigh bells.
‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ started life as a colouring book devised by US advertising copywriter Robert May in 1939. His reindeer was originally called ‘Reginald’ but he changed his mind at the last minute and the book sold 2 million copies in its first Christmas alone. The song was written a decade later by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who also wrote ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’. Marks was Jewish, joining a tradition of Jewish songwriters behind classic Christmas songs, including ‘White Christmas’ (Irving Berlin), ‘Let It Snow’ (Sammy Cahn) and ‘Santa Baby’ (Joan Javits).
Trade card depicts a Santa Claus figure as he waves from a bird-themed sleigh pulled by reindeer as they return to the North Pole after delivering presents from the now empty sack on the back of the sleigh, 1880s. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
The story of ‘Winter Wonderland’ (1934) is a sad one. The lyrics were inspired by watching children playing in the snow outside the sanatorium where songwriter Dick Smith was dying of tuberculosis.
3) Jesus’ mum didn’t call him Jesus
For a start, when Jesus lived in Galilee, the letter ‘J’ didn’t exist. In Hebrew, his name was Yeshua or Yehoshua – from which we get the name Joshua. In Aramaic (the language he probably spoke at home) it was Isho or Yeshu.
When the Gospels were translated from Hebrew into Greek, Yeshua became Iesous. When the Greek was rendered into Latin, it became Iesus. Joshua and Jesus were once the same name.
Classical Latin had no letter J – Caesar was Iulius, not Julius. Except for a handful of borrowed foreign words, modern Italian still has no J. The letter J wasn’t really in common use until the seventeenth century, at first to distinguish between words with ‘i’ as a consonant, pronounced as ‘y’ in ‘iest’ (jest) and the short vowel sound ‘i’, as in ‘it’ or ‘inch’. J wasn’t used in English until around 1630, so Shakespeare never used it either – he wrote Romeo and Iuliet, King Iohn and, like Caesar himself, Iulius Caesar. In time, J came to be spoken in English like the Old English ‘dj’ sound, as in ‘hedge’, while in Spanish J still has a ‘Y’ sound’ and in French it’s halfway between the two.
In Hebrew Jesus’ father’s name was Yusuf, not Joseph, and Jesus would have been Yeshua ben Yusuf (‘Joshua, son of Joseph’). It’s possible neither of them were carpenters. The Hebrew word used to describe what they did is naggara (tekton in Greek). It only comes up twice in the New Testament and other possible meanings are ‘architect’, ‘stone mason’ and ‘builder’ – so Jesus may have been a brickie rather than a chippie.
In 2012 more than 4,000 American children were given the first name Jesus. There were also 800 Messiahs, and 29 Christs.
4) The holiday celebrated on 26 December every year is not Boxing Day
Boxing Day in Britain is defined as ‘the first working day after Christmas’, so it’s not always on 26 December.
For example, if Christmas Day falls on a Friday, Boxing Day is on Monday the 28th, because the Saturday and Sunday aren’t working days. When Christmas falls on a Saturday, Boxing Day is on Monday the 27th (the next working day) and, to make up for Christmas Day being on a weekend, the Christmas Bank Holiday moves to Tuesday the 28th – so that, in one sense, Boxing Day sometimes comes before Christmas.
But there is a holiday that always takes place on 26 December: the Feast of St Stephen. Appropriately for someone whose feast day comes the day after Christmas, St Stephen is the patron saint of headaches. He also looks after deacons, horses and coffin makers, and is the patron saint of stone workers – which is grimly ironic as he was the first Christian martyr to be stoned to death.
St Stephen’s Day is celebrated as an official public holiday throughout most of Europe; only Commonwealth countries celebrate Boxing Day instead. The name comes from the British tradition of giving small ‘Christmas boxes’, containing money or treats, to workers for their service throughout the year.
5) You don’t need to take down your Christmas decorations by Twelfth Night
Taking down decorations on Twelfth Night (5 or 6 January) is a modern superstition. For many centuries they were kept up until Candlemas Eve, 1 February. Candlemas celebrates Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem and presenting him to the Lord. According to St Luke’s gospel they had to sacrifice two pigeons to do so.
Early Christmas decorations consisted mainly of greenery, which kept the house looking cheerful even when the weather outside was miserable. Some people clung to older, pre-Christian beliefs about these – namely that they contained woodland spirits who, if you left the decorations up, would cause mischief in your house. Careful householders took them down and burned them just to make sure.
A photograph of a woman and a little girl decorating a Christmas tree, taken by Photographic Advertising Limited in about 1948. This photograph was sold for use in the Christmas 1948 issue of Mother magazine. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
In North America Candlemas is celebrated as Groundhog Day. Groundhogs are large rodents related to squirrels and, according to folklore, if it’s cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, spring will come early. If it’s sunny, the winter weather will persist for six more weeks.
Of course, the groundhog has no interest in weather forecasting: he’s looking for a mate. Recent statistics, released by the USA’s National Climatic Data Center, “show no predictive skill for the groundhog”. Groundhog Day comes from an older medieval European tradition of the Candlemas Bear, where people watched for a hibernating bear as it awoke to get a similar weather prediction. The rarity of bears in France meant that this duty eventually had to be taken over by a man in a bear costume. A similar tradition in Germany is called Dachstag (‘Badger Day’), and in Ireland they use a hedgehog.
Until the 17th century ‘Christmas’ lasted almost three months, from the Feast of St Martin on 11 November to Candlemas on 2 February. Although today it doesn’t officially begin until Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), the shops make it seem as if it’s starting earlier and earlier – a process known as ‘Christmas Creep’. This is getting faster, and it’s not just retailers. Analysis of Internet searches in 2007 found people started looking for ‘Santa Claus’, ‘elf ’ and ‘presents’ on 11 November. By 2013 they started on 25 August.
The Third QI Book of General Ignorance, published by Faber & Faber, is on sale now