The Most Random Facts About America's Favorite Holidays

By Joan Clamm
Sebastian Staines Nv4yaqj2ezy Unsplash
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There's nothing quite like the excitement of a good holiday to lift your spirits. You may be surprised to learn that many of our favorite holiday traditions have been around for far longer than we imagine. Here you'll learn some fun facts about America's favorite holidays, including their histories and origins.

Get ready to be the smartest person around the yule log this year with this set of fun holiday facts and trivia — they’re sure to make for great conversation starters.

The Origins of Easter

The time of year when we celebrate Easter was chosen to coincide with the spring equinox, which many cultures had been celebrating for centuries. While it may not mean much to us in the age of central heating, the end of winter was a huge deal back in the day.

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For ancient peoples, the return of daylight and spring signaled the resurrection of nature and new life. So it's not much of a surprise that the church found it fitting to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus right around the time that people had already been championing the return of life.

Christmas Tree Chronicles

As far as holiday traditions go, Christmas trees go pretty far back. The early Romans used to deck out their homes and temples in evergreens during the solstice feast of Saturnalia, and Celtic Druids used evergreen branches to symbolize everlasting life.

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It was 16th century German Christians who first started bringing trees into their houses as a way to celebrate Christmas, but Queen Victoria really popularized the idea in England and America. When the news broke that she and Prince Albert had set one up in 1848, suddenly "Christmas trees" became all the rage.

Why We Color Easter Eggs

Have you ever wondered where the idea of decorating eggs for Easter came from in the first place? As delightful as it is, who suddenly dreams up the idea of a random rabbit that travels around laying pretty eggs for kids? Many believe that the answers lie in the 13th century.

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Some scholars think that it probably goes back to the fact that eggs were once forbidden to be consumed during Lent. During the 40-day fasting period, Catholics may have painted the eggs and then eaten them as part of their celebrations on Easter.

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Halloween's Shadowy Origins

As far as holidays go, Halloween is one that you probably won’t be surprised to learn is steeped in ancient pagan traditions. Modern-day Halloween is a descendant of the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked both the end of the harvest season and the start of the darkest day of each year.

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Celts also believe that this time of the year was when the veil between our world and that of the spirits became the thinnest. They originally began wearing costumes so any spirits who wandered over would mistake them for fellow travelers from the other side and leave them be.

NYC's Easter Parade Tradition

If you're ever in New York City on Easter, then be sure to check out the annual Easter Parade and Bonnet Festival on Fifth Avenue from 49th to 57th street. The tradition goes back to the mid-1800s when New York's social elite would all attend Fifth Avenue Easter services decked out in their best hats and outfits.

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Eventually, everyday people started showing up to check out the outfits, sort of like an unofficial fashion show. In 1948, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland even made a movie — which was aptly named Easter Parade — about the tradition.

Who Named Halloween?

The name "Halloween" is related to Catholicism. It was originally known as Allhallowmas or All Hallow's Eve and was meant as a sort of group memorial day for all the saints who never got specific days of their own.

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Like many other popular holidays, it's no accident that the church chose to celebrate Halloween on the same day that the pagans had traditionally celebrated Samhain. Given that they were particularly interested in converting the pagans to their religion, Catholic officials often chose similar holiday dates to make the transition easier for converts.

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The Original Easter Bunny

Given that there's nothing particularly Christian about bunnies and eggs, why are they associated with one of Christianity's most important holidays? Well, Easter is all about new life, right? As it turns out, rabbits tend to be especially...fertile animals who are champs at procreating.

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Some scholars believe that eggs came into play when 18th-century German immigrants brought their tradition of an egg-laying rabbit to America. Known as "Osterhase," legend has it that he hopped around laying colored eggs in nests that children made. They even left out carrots for him, similar to how we leave cookies for Santa.

Why December 25?

While we celebrate Jesus' birthday on December 25, most historians agree that it's very unlikely that’s the actual date on which Christ was born. It was the Romans who initially decided to celebrate in December due to the fact that it fell near several popular pagan holidays.

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This was when the feast of Saturnalia, during which people celebrated and exchanged gifts, usually took place. December 25 was also the date that the ancient Roman population celebrated Sol Invictus, a sun god.

The First Thanksgiving

There's a great deal of confusion over when the first Thanksgiving actually took place and what exactly the pilgrims were so thankful for. Some scholars believe that they had achieved victory in a war with neighboring Indian tribes, while others think it was as innocent as celebrating a great harvest.

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Regardless, the first government-sanctioned Thanksgiving didn't actually take place until 1863. It was President Abraham Lincoln who declared it a national holiday to help bring people back together after the Civil War. While the concept was nothing new, it was the first time it was given an official date.

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Santa Used to Be Skinny

The jolly, cookie-loving Santa we all know and love today wasn’t always so portly. In his earlier incarnations, St. Nick was usually depicted as being pretty skinny. It wasn't until 1890 that he really started packing on the pounds.

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He was first depicted as a large man in a book called Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, but it was Coca-Cola that really cemented his image in the 1930s. Coke ran a series of ads that depicted a cherry-cheeked, chunky Santa who was so popular that he was eventually adopted into popular lore.

Sinter Klaas' Comeback

Santa Claus is based on a Turkish monk from the third century who went around giving away all of his wealth in order to help the poor and needy. His tale eventually migrated to America with 18th-century Dutch immigrants and their cherished legends of "Sint Nikolaas" or "Sinter Klaas."

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But his popularity truly began to soar when an Episcopal minister named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about him in 1822. It’s known today as "‘Twas the Night Before Christmas." Though originally Moore wrote the poem for his kids, it went the 1800s’ equivalent of viral.

Santa's Favorite Snacks

The old "milk and cookies" routine on Christmas Eve has come to be everyone's favorite Santa bribe. But where did it originate? Medieval Germany, as it turns out. Back then, kids didn't leave food out for Santa during Yule season, but for the Norse god Odin.

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He, too, sported a white beard, which most scholars believe is no coincidence, and traveled around on an eight-legged horse delivering gifts and good fortune to those who deserved them. This tradition was reignited for Santa during the Great Depression in order to teach kids the importance of generosity.

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Santa's Mardi Gras Contribution

While you personally may not think of Mardi Gras as a big holiday, it's actually designed to usher in Lent for Catholics who are about to undertake 40 days of fasting. The idea is that you enjoy all the revelry you can before it's time to buckle down and do some penance.

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Ever since its first Mardi Gras parade, New Orleans has become known as the Mardi Gras capital of the world. It was there that, in 1880, a man dressed as Santa first popularized throwing beads to the crowds. The tradition has stuck to this day.

America Wasn't the Pilgrims’ First Choice

As legendary as the pilgrims' journey to America has become, Plymouth wasn't actually their first choice. While they did long to escape religious persecution in England, they first did so by moving to Holland in the early 17th century.

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It turned out, however, that Holland was a little too religiously free for them. They found the culture too "permissive" and also had a hard time making a living in the new country. When they set sail for America, it was to establish their own religious theocracy, which had no place for the separation of church and state.

The Pilgrims Outlawed Christmas

The pilgrims weren't necessarily all about religious freedom. They were more out to find a place where they could practice their own brand of religion. While they may have disagreed with the Church of England and the Catholics, the pilgrims were a pretty strict lot.

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In fact, they considered Christmas so chock full of pagan traditions that it had no place in their new society. From 1659 to 1681, celebrating Christmas was actually illegal in Boston and came with a stiff penalty of a 5-shilling fine (around $8,000 today). It wasn't declared a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870.

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Mardi Gras Masks: Serious Business in NOLA

As Mardi Gras has become a staple of New Orleans culture, it's sprouted a culture all its own. Not only will you find plenty of cool masks among the celebration, but anyone riding a float is actually required to wear one. The idea is to encourage equality and allow everyone an escape from social class and societal obligations.

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Mardi Gras' official colors of purple, green and gold were first selected back in 1872 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich Romanov. These were his house colors, but they’ve since adopted meanings all their own.

Valentine's Day's Crazy Ancestor

What we now know as Valentine's Day originally began as the Roman festival of Lupercalia. This mid-February tradition ushered in spring and involved the sacrifice of animals whose skins were then cut into thin strands. The men took the strands and ran around whipping them at women, which was supposed to render them more fertile.

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Men and women were then paired off by lottery and fertility rites ensued. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day, but it wasn't viewed as a romantic holiday until later on in the 14th century.

The Literal Plymouth Rock

As it turns out, Plymouth Rock is an actual rock and it's still housed in its own little monument to this day. Unfortunately, whether it's the literal rock the pilgrims landed on is a little sketchy. Its validity is based on the word of a 94-year-old man in 1741.

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After he heard that a pier was going to be built over the boulder, the man told everyone that his father and other Mayflower passengers had assured him of its historical legacy. Everyone took him seriously enough to usher the rock to safety, just in case. Who knows if it was really present at the first Thanksgiving?

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Rudolph's Commercial Birth

While Rudolph may now be the most famous reindeer of all, he was originally created to lure people into a department store. In the 1930s, Montgomery Ward used to pass out free paper books to children who came in around Christmas.

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In 1939, they decided it would be cheaper to come up with their own book premise and hired copywriter Robert May to write it. Kids ended up eating up 2.4 million copies of the 32-page booklet that year alone, and Rudolph and his shiny nose have lived in our hearts ever since.

Who Was St. Valentine, Anyway?

While St. Valentine's Day was designed to distract people from the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, it ironically ended up being just as much about love. But who was St. Valentine? One theory holds that he was a martyred priest from 270 B.C., while others hold that he was a bishop named St. Valentine of Terni.

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Some scholars think the two were one and the same. Regardless, legend says that he used to marry lovers, even against the emperor's orders, to save the new husbands from getting drafted off into war.

The Invention of Christmas Lights

Christmas lights are one of the most beautiful parts of Christmas, but have you ever wondered where the tradition came from? Legend has it that the credit goes to Martin Luther, who was inspired as he was walking through the forest one night.

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As he watched the stars gleaming between the tree branches, he decided to recreate the effect by putting candles on a tree he brought into his living room. Though that was a nightmare of a fire hazard, the tradition became popular enough to evolve into the electric lights of today.

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Florida's First Thanksgiving Claim

We all know that the first Thanksgiving feast ever celebrated in the United States happened in Plymouth, Massachusetts, right? Scholars aren't so sure. While Thanksgiving is now an official holiday, for centuries it was a tradition that could be celebrated at any time deemed appropriate.

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Some historians now believe that the 1621 Thanksgiving may have been predated by a Thanksgiving celebration in Florida in 1565. When Spanish explorers officially christened the beaches of St. Augustine, they decided to hold a celebratory Thanksgiving feast and invited the nearby Timucua tribe.

Super-late Wisemen

Each Christmas when we set up nativity scenes, the three wisemen are pretty much staples around baby Jesus' crib. The truth, however, is that they were actually really late to the party. Even the Bible reveals that it took them quite a bit of searching to finally find little Jesus.

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Many biblical scholars interpret Matthew 2:16 to indicate that they may not have found Jesus until he was nearly 2 years old. While their journey was a long and arduous one, their dedication almost makes the arrival even more impressive.

The Yule Log's Legacy

Odds are that you're probably familiar with the yule log in one form or another. For some, it's a chocolate treat that's shaped like a festive log. For others, it's a special fire log that's burned on Christmas. And for others still, it's a crackling fireplace you can stream on your TV.

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Regardless, its tradition is a very ancient one. Ancient Gaels and Celts used to decorate logs with holly, pinecones and ivy each year and burn them at the winter solstice to symbolize the death of the old year and beginning of a new one.

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Mary Did a Little Lobbying

What do "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and Thanksgiving have in common? More than you'd think, actually. Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the lady who wrote the famous children's poem, was also a brilliant writer, editor and champion for women's rights and education.

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She encouraged the tradition of an annual day of Thanksgiving, which was already gaining popularity in some parts of the U.S., and began lobbying President Lincoln to make the holiday official on a national level. When she pointed out that it'd be a great way to help heal after the Civil War, her efforts paid off.

The Evolution of Eggnog

Each year around the holidays, eggnog mysteriously appears in stores across America, only to once more vanish right around New Year's. Apparently, it's been around since medieval times and isn't going anywhere soon. Scholars think it originated as a drink called posset way back in the day.

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Back then, it was pretty pricey to make and was considered an elite drink of the upper class. It traveled to America with the colonists, who ended up making a much cheaper version, and has been a winter staple ever since.

The First Valentine's Day Cards

While Valentine's Day wasn't associated with romance until the 14th century, it didn't take long for things to accelerate after that. By the 1500s, Valentine messages began to appear, and by the 1700s, the first Valentine's Day cards began to be distributed commercially.

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The first printed in the U.S. were inked in the 1800s and usually featured Cupid and plenty of hearts. Birds also began to be associated with the holiday somewhere along the line, due to the fact that their mating season kicks off in mid-February.

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Mistletoe Mayhem

Ever wonder how the mistletoe became the spot to score a holiday kiss? The charming little plant has been honored since ancient times when the Celtic Druids noted it for its ability to blossom even in the harshest of winter climates.

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The association with fertility drifted over to 18th century England, where servants began the whole kissing tradition. The idea of a man being able to steal a kiss from a lady beneath the mistletoe soon reached the English upper classes, who began to join in the fun.

“Jingle Bells” Wasn't Originally a Christmas Song

Each December, it's almost impossible to make it through the month without hearing a rendition of "Jingle Bells" ringing out over a department store sound system. But would you believe that everyone's favorite Christmas song wasn't originally a Christmas song at all?

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As it turns out, the tune was written by James Lord Pierpont back in 1850 for his church's Thanksgiving concert. Initially called "One Horse Open Sleigh," it was republished as "Jingle Bells" in 1857 and somehow became linked with Christmas instead. After all, who's ever heard of a Thanksgiving carol, right?

Santa Has His Own ZIP Code

When you think of all the letters written to Santa by kids around the world, it's kind of heartbreaking to think that they might not end up anywhere. That's why some big-hearted postal workers in Canada decided to start a Santa letter-writing program. Santa even got his own ZIP code of H0H 0H0.

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If your child sends a letter to Santa Claus and addresses it to "North Pole, H0H 0H0, Canada," they'll get a return letter and even a package of magical "North Pole seeds" you can use to teach them about the environment. Epic Christmas-spirit win!

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