10 things you might not know about December holidays

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After a year like this one, we need a month to relax and recover. Happy December, and may all your trivia come in lists of 10.

1 The traditional Christmas plant we call a poinsettia was known by the Aztecs as cuetlaxochitl. Its current name came from the first U.S. enovy to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, who noticed the plant being used for holiday celebrations and sent a few north to the United States in the 1820s.

2 Hanukkah, based on the Jewish calendar, is a wandering holiday. This year, the eight-day celebration begins at sunset Dec. 20. In 2016, it starts on Christmas Eve. In 2013, it's Thanksgiving eve, Nov. 27.

3 Rudolph, who now resides at the North Pole, was born in Chicago in 1939. The Montgomery Ward department store chain assigned ad copywriter Robert May to compose a Christmas poem that could be distributed to customers nationwide. He wrote "Rollo the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but execs didn't like that name. They vetoed Reginald too. May's third name, Rudolph, was accepted, and the poem was shared with millions of customers.

4 Kwanzaa, which is observed Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, is a nonreligious holiday that celebrates African-American culture. The weeklong event highlights seven principles, including Nia, which is Swahili for "purpose." That's where actress Nia Long got her name.

5 Abraham Lincoln's youngest son Thomas, nicknamed Tad, was known as a sensitive youngster. On Christmas 1864, Tad, then 10, took the spirit of the season to heart and invited some street urchins into the White House for a meal. The cooks refused to feed the kids until Tad took up the issue with the president, who ordered that the children be fed.

6 Among the holiday traditions on a decline are tinsel and spray cans of fake snow, according to a recent article by Marc Levy on thestreet.com. Already declared dead are aluminum trees, which became uncool when they were denounced on TV's "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

7 Boxing Day is a weird holiday. No one is sure when it started or how it got its name. Celebrated in many British-influenced lands, Boxing Day is traditionally the day after Christmas. It may be an offshoot of St. Stephen's Day, which is what the Irish call it. In Canada and England, it has turned into a shopping frenzy like America's Black Friday. The "box" in Boxing Day may be the donation bins of the Anglican church that were opened for the poor Dec. 26. Or the name may come from the boxed presents that British aristocrats gave to the help the day after Christmas.

8 The Christmas tradition of kissing someone under the mistletoe took on a decidedly Chicago bent in 1975. The first Mayor Richard Daley was fiercely protective of his family. Responding to criticism that he funneled city business to a company that employed his son, he responded, "There's a mistletoe hanging from my coattail."

9 St. Francis of Assisi is credited with making the nativity scene part of the Christmas tradition. In 1223, he organized a live creche to emphasize Jesus's humble beginnings in poverty.

10 We were all told that the poem "The Night Before Christmas" was written by Clement Clarke Moore, a Manhattan scholar. But the facts are squishier. For starters, the poem was first published as "A Visit From St. Nicholas." For another thing, Moore may not have written it. Literary sleuth Donald Foster investigated the Christmas poem and concluded that Moore was lying. Foster thinks the author was amateur poet Henry Livingston Jr. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Foster says the poem bears the style, outlook and cultural references of Livingston, not Moore. Moore didn't claim ownership until 1844, 19 years after the poem's anonymous appearance in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper. By that time, Livingston was dead. Before coming forward as the author, Moore wrote to the Troy newspaper and asked whether anyone remembered the poem's author. The answer came back that anyone who might have known was dead and gone.

mjacob@tribune.com

sbenzkofer@tribune.com

Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the newspaper's weekend editor.

Sources: "Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things" by Charles Panati; "A Christmas Compendium" by J. John; "Handbook to Life in the Medieval World, Vol. 3" by Madeleine Pelner Cosman and Linda Gale Jones; "Author Unknown," by Donald Foster; "The Upside-Down Christmas Tree" by Delilah Scott and Emma Troy; "Baby Names For Dummies" by Margaret Rose; "Baby Names Now" by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran; "Christmas in the White House" by Albert J. Menendez; "Chase's Calendar of Events"; Claire Suddath in time.com; thestreet.com; chabad.org; holidays.net; literarytraveler.com; Cincinnati Post; Tribune archives

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