Tis always the season for myths, urban legends and old wives’ tales, but there are a few that pertain specifically to the Christmas season and, as usual, one of my favourite things is debunking erroneous, widely-held beliefs.
1. Poinsettias are toxic to cats and dogs.
It amazes me how persistent and widespread this myth is. According to Snopes.com, and many other reliable sources, it may have started with a single misdiagnosis nearly a century ago. In 1919, a two-year-old child of an army officer stationed in Hawaii died of poisoning ostensibly from ingesting a leaf from a poinsettia plant.
Despite the fact that one non-poinsettia-related death was proved false and research has confirmed time and again the plants are not poisonous, year after year, when the colourful Mexican plants start arriving in stores, people invariably say, ‘keep those away from your pets and/or kids.’
There are, in fact, members of the same family that are toxic, but the cheerful and very Christmassy poinsettia is not one of them.
That’s not to say eating poinsettia leaves might not be upsetting to small tummies, but Thom David, the marketing manager for a large California supplier of poinsettias says even that should not be of concern since the taste is “indescribably awful,” which he learned from proving to disbelievers that they’re not toxic.
2. Coca-Cola invented the modern image of Santa Claus.
This one isn’t terribly common, but most people have heard it at some point or another. Of course, it is not beyond advertisers to concoct lovable characters, but the jolly, rotund, red-and-white garbed elf we know today is not one of them.
The modern Santa is a bit of an enigma, a hybrid of several historical and mythical characters who has morphed and evolved over the years. Long before Coke arrived, the earliest version of the Claus we are familiar with appeared in Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, a satirical look at the Dutch roots of the pre-American Revolution colony. During the 1800s the character was refined by carious authors and artists including Clement Clarke Moore who wrote “The Night before Christmas” in 1823 and Thomas Nast, who was the first illustrator to depict the red-and-white suit in 1869.
Various others picked up on that including, perhaps most famously, Norman Rockwell on a 1922 cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
Coca-Cola did have a hand in popularizing the persona, however. Starting in 1931, in an attempt to boost winter sales, the soda company coopted Santa, who already sported the corporate colours, for advertising purposes.
3. Abbreviating Christmas to Xmas is an attempt by secularists to take the Christ out of Christmas.
There is no question that Christmas is perhaps the most secularized and commercialized religious holiday there is. The other variation on the Xmas myth is that advertisers are responsible for the abbreviation and it is indicative of the commercialization.
In fact, ‘X’ is the Christ in Xmas. It is an abbreviation stemming from the Greek letter Chi has been used for centuries to represent Christ. Anybody who has ever attended Catholic, some Protestant or Orthodox Christian churches has seen it in use in priest’s vestments, artwork and other religious icons as an X through P.
It was certainly convenient in the days of handwriting and typesetting and other examples can be found in old text including Xian for Christian and Xianity for Christianity. It was even commonly used for names like Christopher (Xopher) and Christine (Xine). Pop music sensation Christina Aguilera has sometimes gone by Xtina.
Of course, in these days of word processors and digital printing the use of many formerly common abbreviations has fallen out of favour particularly in formal writing such as journalism in which many prestigious style guides now deprecate the usage of Xmas (except, of course, in the context of discussing Christmas versus Xmas).
4. What the heck is Boxing Day anyway?
I’m not even sure what the myth is here, but I can remember my American friends when I lived in the U.S. being curious about this Commonwealth tradition that they don’t share.
I couldn’t really explain it then and I don’t know that I can definitively now either other than to say it’s a holiday in the U.K., Canada and many other Commonwealth nations observed by the lucky among us who don’t work in retail sales where it is quite probably the worst day of the year, much like Black Friday in the States.
Even my favourite myth-debunking sites have a hard time with its origins except to say that it does not stem from the need to rid our homes of the empty boxes from Christmas presents the day before.
Among the competing theories, however, there is a common theme that it relates to the class system that existed centuries ago (and some would argue, still exists) in Great Britain.
Some say it was the day churches opened the alms boxes they kept for donations during the year and distributed the money to the poor.
Another popular contention is that the rich would box up their leftovers, food and unwanted presents, from Christmas day and give the boxes to their servants.
There are various other iterations of the theme all of which may have a vestige of truth to them, but it may be that the true meaning of boxing day is lost to the ages.