There are facts we know, and facts we don’t know. Then there are other facts we knew, but don’t know anymore – it’s called forgetfulness. But here are a few facts you maybe didn’t know, or perhaps did know and just forgot, but will probably remember from now on.
Seeing the braai smoke has dissipated and the emotional hangovers of the festive season are thankfully in last month’s outbox, we can objectively explore the origins of some Xmas traditions we take for granted.
Decorating Xmas trees with flowers, bright berries and ribbons harks back to the Middle Ages in Germany and gradually spread across Europe. Settlers in the New World took the tradition with them, and in 1851 a bloke called Mark Carr opened the first ‘Xmas Trees for Sale’ lot in New York.
The idea caught on, but with a strange twist over time. A 2019 survey revealed that 77% of American households displayed a Xmas tree at home. Tree-huggers (Xmas or not), will be delighted to know that 81% were artificial.
And while we’re chatting about Xmas, the first recognised Xmas card – slightly bigger than a business card – was originally dished around for goodwill in England around 1843, bearing this highly creative message: ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’. The idea of a mailed postcard slowly caught on, and in 1915 the Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) created a folded card plus the envelope, and last year they sold 1.6 billion, which sadly involved lots of trees.
Anyway, the earliest version of the poem-turned-song, the Twelve Days of Christmas happened around 1780. If all the gifts were added up according to today’s value of money (partridge/pear tree included + VAT), the ‘true love’ would have to cough up a bowel-churning R565 500 to get a leg over. Good luck.
For centuries, ordinary folks in Britain would gather in taverns and shebeens to share information, cement friendships, catch the latest gossip, and generally get drunk. Back then, patrons were served their beer/cider/mead in pint- or quart-sized containers for convenience.
The barmaid’s job was to keep an eye on the customers’ jars and to ensure the drinks kept coming, pretty much like today. But it was also her job to remember who drank their plonk in pints and who was quaffing in quarts. She therefore had to mind her P’s and Q’s.
In some of these establishments, card games (with the regular 52 per pack) were played, and money changed hands, which didn’t sit well with the Tax Department. They wanted their slice of the profits but were unable to police it, so they levied a tax on the purchase of playing cards, and the Ace of Spades, being ‘top of the pile’, was the nominated card to cover the levy.
To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase only 51 cards instead, and screw the Ace of Spades. But because most games required 52 cards, these folks were regarded as somewhat stupid/dim-witted because they weren’t ‘playing with a full deck.’
Excuse my French
Initially, Max Robespierre seemed a decent sort of bloke. Born in 1758, he became a French lawyer and statesman fighting for equality and human rights for all – rich, poor, fat or scrawny. His nickname was ‘The Incorruptible’ and, amongst other scruples, he fought staunchly against the horror of the guillotine, and sacrificed a brilliant legal career for refusing to serve in a court that condemned people to the scaffold.
All well and good so far. But in 1793 he headed up the Committee of Public Safety, whose main objective was to purge France of all enemies of the revolution, and also to repel foreign invaders. The best way to do it, decided our Max, was to launch the Reign of Terror that sent between 20 and 30 thousand to the guillotine within 18 months. How’s that for an about-face?
Serves him right though, because a year later – after eating cake with Marie-Antoinette – he was overthrown, and he too lost his head at the guillotine.