Christmas is a feast of fact, fiction and glorious titbits. Brian Donaldson unwraps a pair of books which lift the lid on the silliness of the season
One question is eventually brought up about Christmas by the more inquisitive elements within the community of children. Just how in blazes does Santa manage to get round all the kids of the world in one night? Logical responses about shifting time zones and the bearded guy’s legions of helpers go straight out the window when hit by a look of doubt emanating from their no-longer-quite-so-naive tiny faces. But if you really want to hit the nippers for six you could whip out this little factoid: to deliver all his presents in one fell swoop, Mr Claus would need to sprint round 1500 homes every second and, allowing for mince pie and whisky breaks, Prancer, Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen and the other ones, whatever they’re called, would need to move at 5000 times the speed of light.
Such a well-researched snippet is one of plenty in What is Myrrh Anyway? a tome by Jonathan Green aptly subtitled ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas’. Whether you like it or not, this includes the traditional recipe for roast swan (‘one swan and olive oil’). The contents page alone is enough to make you choke on your nut cutlets: where would you get a Christingle? What is figgy pudding? And when was Christmas cancelled? Some facts could have you looking at Rudolph in a different way from now on: Iceland is leading the way on reindeer meat to go with the sprouts and stuffing while the animals themselves are vegetarian by choice though they have been known to chomp on any rodent that gets in their path. And the Lapps believe that swallowing powdered antlers increases virility.
Not for nothing is Sonja Patel’s The Christmas Companion subtitled ‘A Merry Little Book of Festive Fun and Trivia’. Following in the footsteps of Think Books’ companions on fishing, curries, sailing and Stonehenge, Patel sets her stall out immediately with a quote from Bart Simpson: ‘aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? You know, the birth of Santa.’ Naturally, St Nicholas gets a fair bit of publicity in this book, including a list of his alternative names across the globe: in Malta, he’s Santa Klaws, in Iran he’s Baba Noel while the Turks turn that notion completely on its head by dubbing him Noel Baba. Meanwhile, US commentator and right wing wag PJ O’Rourke believes that ‘God is a Republican, and Santa is a Democrat’. Certainly, no one would deny that fact this year.
There is, of course, a dark side to all this festivity, as Patel’s book details. In 1986, fresh from his success directing The Fly, David Cronenberg made a film for Canadian TV, which featured Santa being infected with a deadly virus by a violent moose while few now put a red circle around 28 December aka Innocents’ Day, which marks the slaughter of every child under two-years-old by mean old Herod. Though most disturbingly of all, Robbie Williams has had a Christmas number one album on three occasions during this century. And they call it a season of goodwill.
What is Myrrh Anyway? is published by Icon Books and The Christmas Companion is published by Think Books. Both are out now.