7 Holiday Legends Debunked

Are the reindeer accompanying Santa male or female?
Are the reindeer accompanying Santa male or female?

The holiday season can be a time of great cheer—and great confusion. That is because there are some stories of holidays gone by that have gotten a little twisted over the years. Let us take a look at seven popular holiday myths and set the record straight.

1. Is it true that Santa's reindeer are female?

We know that Rudolph is a male reindeer, but what about the rest of Santa’s brigade? Their names aren’t much help when you think about it: Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. So when it comes to determining the gender of Santa’s reindeers, we have to look to a key feature of these creatures: the antlers.

Reindeers’ antlers grow every year during the summer. Both males and females lose their antlers at some point during the year. Females keep them on until the spring, while male reindeer only have theirs until late November to mid-December. In other words, female reindeers have their antlers intact for the annual trip from the North Pole while male reindeers do not. Because Santa’s reindeer are always described or shown in illustrations as having antlers, we have to go with biology and say that Rudolph’s crew are all ladies. 

2. Was “Jingle Bells” actually written for Thanksgiving?

Christmas has enough carols. It doesn’t have to claim “Jingle Bells,” too. And as it turns out, it actually can’t. While “Jingle Bells” is a favorite Christmastime anthem because of its mention of sleigh rides and fun in the snow, it was actually written with Thanksgiving in mind.

There are several stories about the origin of “Jingle Bells,” but this is the most widely accepted one: In 1850, James Pierpont wrote the song to honor the memory of his childhood winters in Medford, MA. But it wasn’t meant to be sung for Christmas--Pierpont actually wrote the song to be performed at the Thanksgiving program at his father’s school.

3. Who wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas”?

The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—what we often call “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”—first appeared as an anonymous piece in the Troy Sentinel in New York on December 23, 1823. More than a decade later, the professor and poet Clement Clark Moore was given credit for the now timeless work. As the story went, a housekeeper had found Moore’s poem that he had written for his children and submitted it. In 1844, an anthology of Moore’s work was published, including the Christmas Eve poem.

Nice story, right? Not if you’re part of the Livingston family. Those children say that their father, Henry Livingston, Jr., wrote that very poem for them 15 years before it appeared in the newspaper. 

So who wrote it? 

Team Livingston says that the Dutch references in the poem are a nod to Livingston’s Dutch heritage. Then, there’s the written and dated original copy that once existed—until it burned down in a house fire. Even a Vassar professor’s analysis of writing from both authors sides with Livingston.

Those on Team Moore will point to the poet’s friendship with Washington Irving as proof that Moore wrote it. In one of his books, Irving refers to St. Nicholas, who looks a lot like the jolly guy in Moore’s poem. Could their friendship prove rightful authorship? Maybe not, but Moore still is the one noted for writing the poem, not Livingston. 

4. Does eating turkey really make you sleepy?

For years, the post-Thanksgiving dinner food coma has been pinned on the turkey. It is believed that tryptophan, an amino acid that is in turkey, creates chemicals in the brain that make people tired. However, if you fall asleep after your last bite of turkey, don’t blame it on the bird. 

Instead, it’s likely the overload of carbs that makes you sleepy. Although tryptophan is part of serotonin, which gets converted to melatonin, the sleep hormone, other meals actually have more tryptophan than turkey. But combine turkey with sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and other delicious carbs, and you will certainly feel a nap coming on.

5. Does the Christmas tree really come from Germany?

Evergreen and spruce trees are inherent to wintertime. Centuries ago, people would hang these branches for good luck, often during the Winter Solstice, arriving on or around December 21, near Christmas. So fragrant trees at Christmastime have been around since ancient times.

However, Germany is indeed credited with the modern Christmas tree. In the 1500s, Christians would bring trees into their homes and decorate them. By the 1700s, people added wax candles to light the branches. By the 1800s, the Christmas tree was a widely recognized part of German culture.

The tradition of Christmas trees spread around the world when in 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, her husband from Germany, were photographed with their family around their Christmas tree. Their adoring subjects picked up on the German tradition, and so it became popular in Britain and America as well.

6. Do Hanukkah candles have to be lit from right from left?

This is a question that dates back to the Talmudic time. Rabbis Hillel and Shammai disagreed on the way the menorah should be lit. Shammai believed that all eight candles should be lit, then one fewer each night to signify the decreasing oil that was able to burn for eight nights, according to the legend.

However, Hillel preferred to light one candle more each of the eight nights to signify the miracle that there was enough oil to provide light for eight days. The light represents hope, and Hillel and his proponents wanted to create more of it.

Hillel’s method is the one that is followed: Put the candles in from right to left. Light from left to right using your right hand to avoid casting a shadow on the candles.

7. Poinsettia plants are poisonous to pets and young children

What would the winter holidays be without those red leafy plants? If you have pets or young children, you might have been warned to keep these beauties away from your home due to their toxicity. However, this is not so. While their sap might be irritating, especially if ingested, it is not poisonous. 

The belief that poinsettias are poisonous stems from the tragic story of a child who died in 1919, supposedly because of a poinsettia. However, a medical study shows that out of nearly 23,000 cases of poinsettia exposure that were reported to poison control centers, not one of them resulted in death. While it’s never a good idea to munch on a plant, you can enjoy poinsettias during the holidays knowing that they mean no harm.

If any of the above myths have been bugging you at holiday time, now you can relax and feel more festive.


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