The Christmas season, or the season of whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of the year, is traditionally one of joy.
This year, our joy is muted, because of the tragedies that recently took place in Connecticut. But, the joy which the season celebrates transcends even something as horrible as that.
For the past several years - because in Chautauqua County the community-wide, arts-centered celebrations typically shut down in mid-December, while the good people focus on the reunion of families, the re-establishment of contact with friends now at a distance and other such good, good purposes - we have used the column immediately before Christmas to explore some of the facts and statistics of holiday celebrations.
Robert W. Plyler
To me, it makes for pleasant and entertaining reading, while it continues a focus on the holiday at the time we most ought to be focused upon it.
I spent quite a few hours researching the column in both books and via computer. I think the items we're reporting are accurate and truthful. But, let's be realistic. There are no large cash prizes involved to be won or lost. Try to maintain a degree of chill in the spirit of the season. If my sources say the widest Christmas tree on record grew in South Carolina, and you have a source that says that tree grew in Kentucky, consider saying to yourself that clearly there are disagreements on the issue. Then go and have a nice cup of hot chocolate.
This year, instead of quizzes, I thought I would write the column in a spirit of rumination, stating the information I have found and talking about it as I would with a friend if we were together. I hope you like it, and if you don't, seasons greetings and wishes for happiness, all the same.
Christmas trees are one of the most popular symbols of the season. Even people who do not celebrate Christmas sometimes enjoy decorating a tree to bring an element of beauty into their homes or work places.
My sources say that since the year 2000, Americans have bought between 25 and 30 million live evergreen trees per year for use in holiday celebrations. In Europe, people purchase approximately 60 million trees each year.
One source said that 88 percent of American homes have at least one tree, either natural or artificial. We have purchased between eight and 12 million artificial trees per year during that period as well.
When I was growing up, we always had a natural tree. I have written in past years about some of our adventures in visiting tree farms to cut trees. Each holiday season, I was tormented by fits of wheezing and serious infections of the upper respiratory system. I suppose it never occurred to my family that I was allergic to those trees.
My parents never took issues such as allergies all that seriously, having survived two world wars and the Great Depression. I had one aunt who was absolutely determined that allergies were all in the heads of those who thought they suffered from them. One of my worst allergies is to walnuts, and my loving aunt used to stir a few nuts into dishes where they might not be expected to see if I couldn't just eat them with no ill effects.
It took several unpleasant episodes before she was finally cured of her game of "find the walnuts."
The Department of Agriculture estimates that there are approximately 350 million trees in the U.S., which have been planted specifically for the purpose of becoming Christmas trees. On the average, they will be pruned regularly in order to bear the pyramid-like shape which is most admired, and then cut after six to seven years of growth. Rarely is a tree cut which is older than 15 years old.
One of my sources claims that the most expensive decorating of a tree took place in the United Arab Emirates in the year 2010, where a Christmas tree was decked in real gold and genuine gems to the tune of well over $11 million.
Christmas trees are grown commercially in all 50 states, and at the moment, Oregon raises the most. Pennsylvania is high in the rankings.
Most of us know that the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree in celebration of Christmas dates back to Germany, where some say it had its origins in the religious practices of pre-Christian pagan celebrations. Traditionally, when England's teenaged Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, he convinced her to erect a tree at Windsor Castle as part of the family's celebrations. When the queen started following the custom, it quickly spread through England, and from there to English-speaking lands, including the U.S.
Each year at the Fenton History Center, in Jamestown, they decorate a tree which is suspended upside down from the ceiling. Officially, that was done to replace the grand chandeliers in royal palaces, while they were taken down for cleaning, but I have heard the sentiment expressed that the inverted tree was really intended to discourage mice and other vermin who wished to feast on the strings of popcorn and other edible treats on the tree. That is a tradition which is celebrated each year in performances of the ballet ''Nutcracker.''
One of my sources says that to some degree, the tradition of the tree is a Christian symbol, dating to the practice of performing morality plays at Christmas. Christian tradition says that it was the sin of Adam and Eve, in eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, which made it necessary for Christ to redeem mankind from our sin by his birth and eventual sacrifice. Each year at Christmas, throughout the late Roman Empire and into the Middle Ages, actors would erect and decorate elaborate trees to represent the Garden, on one of which was a large, golden apple, which would be used in portraying the fall of mankind.
While in most places decorating the tree is a project for the entire family, some cultures have very specific rules about Christmas trees. In parts of Germany, for example, the tree is to be decorated by the mother of the family, and it is disturbing to traditionalists if other family members give a hand.
In a similar vein, in parts of Ireland it is assumed that the youngest child in a family will light the Christmas candles on Dec. 24 - and nobody else.
While ''30 Rock'' is the name of a television series, it refers to the mailing address of the building in which the series takes place: 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Probably the most recognized element of that building is the giant ice skating rink, beside which there stretches a huge, reclining statue of the Greek god Prometheus, who gave mankind the gift of fire. The statue is made of bronze, which has been gilded. It was created in 1934 by sculptor Paul Manship, and it actually represents the god flying through the air, rather than lying on his side.
Above and behind the statue is located what my sources claimed to be the most photographed Christmas tree in the world.
There has been a tree placed on that spot every year since 1931. The original tree was measured at 20 feet high. In 1932, the tree was 50 feet high. The subsequent trees have more or less grown regularly until 1997, when a 100-foot beauty was put in place, and that caused enough complications that trees since then have been somewhat smaller, although it still towers above onlookers.
I had the good fortune to be present this month when the tree was officially lighted. Unlike the folks at home - who saw performances by the dancing Rockettes and performances by Bette Midler and other popular singers, speeches by major politicians, and other such events - those of us who were actually there got to see the lovely dancers, but had to watch other events on giant television screens because they took place on nearby rooftops and other places that couldn't be seen by those of us on the ground.
Speaking of the Rockettes, I read that during the 2011 run of the traditional Rockefeller Center holiday extravaganza, those lovely ladies made 1,300 costume changes. And they looked great in all of them.
In 2007, the center switched from incandescent colored bulbs on the tree to LED lights, which use substantially less electricity and which produce far less heat, which is a fire hazard on a tree.
One of my sources claimed that the U.S. alone produces 1.76 billion candy canes per annum - enough to stretch around the world 6.7 times at the equator.
The house made of ginger bread is a popular holiday symbol, some say in connection with the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, in which the wicked witch lured children to her home by making it out of delicious things to eat. Neiman Marcus stores sell a gingerbread house which is large enough for children to play inside it. Cost? $1,500.
Speaking of Hansel and Gretel, have you heard the fairy tale about Henry and Margaret? It's the same. Hansel and Gretel are diminutives of those names. When the real Maria von Trapp, of "Sound of Music" fame, spoke at Chautauqua some years back, she was annoyed that the Hollywood film had named one of her children "Marguerita" and another "Gretel," because she said those were the same name.
In Hungary, I'm told, it is considered unacceptable for anyone to start eating dinner on Christmas Eve until someone has spotted the first star in the sky. There must be many hungry Hungarians on cloudy Christmas Eves.
Another food which is often associated with the holidays is mince pie. In England, the pie is so associated with the holiday that during the 17th century, when the Puritan Oliver Cromwell executed King Charles I and created a dictatorship dominated by his own religion, Cromwell outlawed celebrating Christmas, declaring that the incarnation of the Word of God was to be a sober and serious event, not a raucous, often drunken celebration. He also forbade the baking of mince pies.
Celebrating Christmas was also against the law in Puritan-founded colonies in the U.S. until after the Civil War, including Massachusetts - although nothing I've read said that mince pie was banned in Boston, along with the holiday.
The first documented example of Americans consuming egg nog took place in 1609 in that other Jamestown - the colony in Virginia.
Experts claim that the earliest reference to Christmas pudding was a Celtic dish, popular with the Celts, who lived all across the British Isles and in western France. They loved a dish called "frumenty," and they believed that by eating it, they were honoring one of their pagan gods, named "Dagda." They believed he was an Earth god and a sun god, who had a magical club which would kill nine men every time he put it into motion, but with the handle of which, he could restore the victims to life, if he chose.
Just in case, ''Celts'' is pronounced ''kelts,'' not ''selts.''
Later in history, frumenty became associated with Mothering Sunday, a day in which it was expected that people who employed servants would allow them a day off to return to their mother parish church and visit their parents and families. It was traditional, once they arrived at home, to serve the oatmeal-like frumenty to warm and strengthening the visitors before they began the long journey back to their employers' homes.
In southern France, in the province of Provence, it was traditional to consume 13 desserts at the conclusion of Christmas dinner in honor of Christ and the 12 apostles. The source doesn't say so - perhaps they burned one of the desserts on behalf of Judas.
OTHER HOLIDAY FARE
In recent years, we have been starving off our postal system, using emails, text messages and tweets, as well as phone calls. Still, one out of every three Americans have visited a post office at least once during the holiday season, according to a source.
The postal system has produced 1.3 billion stamps bearing holiday-related images, and Americans will receive 15.8 billion pounds of mail between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Americans buy 1.5 billion Christmas cards per year, mostly in boxes of multiple cards, rather than as individual purchases. Some of them get handed to the recipient or included in wrapped gifts, but 1.3 billion of them have been or will be mailed.
Of special note, Americans typically mail 30 million pounds of items during the holiday season to individuals at military bases around the world.
Our nature tends to enjoy records and the biggest of everything. I read that the largest Christmas gift ever given was the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States in 1886. The statue itself is made of beaten sheets of copper over an iron structure and weighs 225 tons. The statue was the entire gift. The pedestal on which it stands was erected with money donated by Americans, including a campaign in which children were asked to mail in a dime for the purchase of the pedestal.
Originally, only the statue's right arm, raised and bearing a torch, was sent to the U.S. and put on display at the Philadelphia World's Fair. The rest arrived later. The statue was created by sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi. There is a tradition in Colmar, Bartholdi's hometown, in eastern France that the sculptor's mother was the model for the robed lady. The framework which keeps it standing through hurricanes and years of bad weather was created by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, whose metal tower is much-celebrated in Paris.
The largest known Christmas ornament was made of beer bottles and stood approximately 30 feet high.
According to Guinness, the largest snowman ever made was built in Maine and stood 113 feet hall. I assume they were allowed to use a crane to get that top snowball onto the top.
Christmas Day, or Dec. 25, for most believers is traditionally the first day of Christmas, and some believe that 11 more Christmas days follow. There are two different traditions behind the second day.
It is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death shortly after the Crucifixion, while the future Saint Paul held the coats of the killers. Every year thousands of people sing about Good King Wenceslas, a king in what is today the Czech Republic, who looked out the window on Dec. 26 and took pity on a poor man trying to find firewood to survive an especially cold winter. Most of the singers don't know who the king was or when the Feast of Stephen happens, but it is an appealing melody.
Another tradition for that day is called Boxing Day. On the day after Christmas, it was traditional in some countries, especially England, that people would take a large box and fill it with items, especially clothing, which they were willing to share with those who were too poor to afford to buy the items for themselves.
There are comic jests about people who box up their unwanted Christmas gifts or who use the tradition to unload things of which they are tired or which are worn out, but in fact, many people are generous and kind, and they're the ones who matter.
Holly is a plant which maintains bright green leaves and red berries throughout the winter, when most plants die or become dessicated, so it has become associated with rebirth or eternal life.
Mistletoe is a parasite plant which grows on the branches of trees into the wood of which it penetrates to acquire moisture and other nutrients. It is spread by bird droppings, which contain seeds the bird has excreted, after digesting the plant's berries. In tradition, the mistletoe was once a tall and strong tree, but it allowed the Romans to create Christ's cross from its wood, so it was cursed and turned into a parasite, which draws its life from stronger species.
Mistletoe is most obvious in winter, because its evergreen leaves stand out on a tree which has lost its own leaves. The Celtic druids believed that the plant had magical properties, especially if it was cut from the tree, using a sickle made of pure silver, during the dark of the moon. It was also sacred to some nations of American Indians.
According to one source which bills itself as the official source of facts about Santa Claus, the good man always sleeps with his beard outside the covers, because cold air makes the beard grow. I don't know how anyone is going to prove or disprove that one.
A group of statisticians with nothing better to do got together and decided that in order to visit all the homes in the world where people believe in Christmas during the 24 hours of Christmas Eve, Santa would have to travel at a speed of 650 miles per second. He would have to visit 822 homes per second. Imagine the eating of all those cookies.
In Iceland, it is believed that there are 13 magical creatures who perform the tasks usually attributed to Santa. They bear interesting names, also, including Spoon Licker, Door Sniffer and Meat Hook.
To conclude our little meander through holiday lore, I have two more gems:
There is an official name for the little guy in the morning coat and top hat who appears on the various Chance and Community Chest cards relating to the board game Monopoly. His name is Uncle Pennybags.
And finally, how many times has Charles Dickens' classic short story, ''A Christmas Carol'' been made into a film? Approximately 800 different versions exist if you count animated or cartoon versions.
I hope you've enjoyed it all as much as I have. Happy holidays to all.