Each year, at this time of the year, I am struck by the ironies of writing this column. Early December is jammed with performances and exhibits, related closely to the coming Christmas holiday. Competition for our space in the newspaper is exhaustive and sometimes heated.
We do everything in our power to get everyone the coverage they want. Then suddenly, everyone jams on the brakes. Nobody wants to schedule anything which they consider TOO close to Christmas, because people will be busy with family occasions and perhaps traveling ''over the river and through the woods,'' leaving no ticket buyers to attend performances, and perhaps no actors or singers or dancers to present the performances.
It would seem wrong to do an arts column on Dec. 24 which didn't relate to Christmas, and yet, all our local events are over, except the Chautauqua Chamber Singers' upcoming concert for Twelfth Night, and that isn't until January.
A few years ago, we hit on the idea of doing a fun-oriented column on the Saturday before Christmas, using quizzes and short pieces about the holiday and how it is celebrated by different people around the world. A surprisingly large number of readers have taken the time and trouble to contact us and tell us how much they enjoyed these columns, which has inspired us to made an annual trip to the local library, coupled with several passes through the sites on the internet dealing with the upcoming holiday, to try and find new and different material, for another year's holiday column.
Each year, we've managed to make at least one person furiously angry, because he doesn't agree with the answers we provide. I try to tell these folks that I can't possibly travel to Amsterdam or to Japan or to India to confirm what the books and websites say. We just take their word for it. Please realize we're not giving instructions for brain surgery here, and if something turns out to be incorrect, it's only a game, after all.
So, for those who enjoy it, let's look into the vast ocean of lore surrounding the Christmas holiday:
1. Many Americans like to celebrate Christmas with a meal centered on a roast turkey. In the Southeastern U.S., it's common to also have a baked ham, and sometimes both meats are served cold. Through most of English history - though not so much today - what was the traditional Christmas meal?
2. It's difficult to think of Charles Dickens' beloved ''A Christmas Carol,'' without saying aloud Ebenezer Scrooge's famous line ''Bah, humbug'' a time or two. In fact, when Dickens originally wrote the story, his old miser said a different exclamation. What did Scrooge originally say?
3. England has a law which has been on the books since the 16th century requiring everyone in the country to do something on Christmas. What?
4. There is an old wives' tale which relates to loaves of bread which are baked on Dec. 24. What is supposed to be magically true of such bread?
5. An old Celtic tradition allows people to kiss members of the opposite sex whom they find beneath a sprig of mistletoe. What does the tradition prescribe for someone who lingers under the magic sprig but who doesn't get a kiss?
6. In Scandinavia, it was once believed that the Yule Log, which was burned on the fire on Christmas Day, had the magical property of doing what?
7. The popular carol ''The Twelve Days of Christmas'' has aroused much debate, regarding whether the singer gives his or her true love another partridge in another pear tree for a total of 12, or if it is a partridge on the first day only, two turtledoves only on the second day, etc. What is the official argument for repeating all the past gifts, while adding a new one each day?
8. Marketing statistics demonstrate that one commercial product sells an additional 300 tons in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. What product becomes suddenly so popular?
9. One poll claims that those who go Christmas shopping can be expected to be elbowed in the ribs during their excursion how many times on the average?
10. England has a village which has adopted the name ''North Pole.'' Therefore, postal regulations require that letters sent by British children to Santa at ''The North Pole'' must be sent by the royal mail to the post office in that village. Curiously, a child who uses any other address, such as ''Toyland'' or ''Santa's Workshop,'' will find that his letter will be sent to another community, which has been designated to receive all such mailings. Where do they go?
1. The traditional English feast is the literal head of a pig, roasted, and served with mustard - the Boar's Head.
2. Dickens originally wrote that Scrooge proclaimed ''Bah, Christmas.'' And he originally named Tiny Tim ''Little Larry.''
3. Although the law hasn't been applied for several centuries, the law books still say that everyone in England must attend church on Christmas, and must go there on foot, using neither an animal, such as a horse or a mule, nor a vehicle of any kind.
4. It is a superstition that bread baked on Dec. 24 will never grow moldy. Maybe that's because it ends up being eaten before it can do so.
5. Someone who stays under the mistletoe and doesn't get a kiss was believed to be condemned to end the coming year unmarried. That's bad news for the person's spouse.
6. Ashes from the Yule Log were believed to purify water, especially in wells, so that it would become safe to drink.
7. If the gifts in the song are repeated until the 12th day arrives, the true love will receive 364 gifts - one for every day of the coming year except Good Friday. And, occasionally, Leap Year.
8. According to my sources, the makers of aluminum foil sell 300 tons more of their product in the approximate month between Thanksgiving and Christmas than they do during a similar number of days at any other time of year. Presumably the foil either roasts turkeys or gets made into holiday cards and decorations.
9. The poll in question claims that each holiday shopper can expect to have a Close Encounter of the First Kind with someone's elbow on three separate occasions.
10. Letters to Santa from the United Kingdom, unless addressed to the North Pole, are sent to Edinburgh, Scotland. The website doesn't say why.
NAMES WHICH SHOULD BE FAMOUS
1. Our tradition of Christmas card exchanges was largely made possible by what German immigrant to the U.S., when he invented a way to reproduce a colored image inexpensively and advertised it by sending greetings to friends and business contacts?
2. In addition to Jesus, whose specific date of birth remains in dispute, name some famous individuals who were born on Dec. 25.
3. Name some of the individuals who passed from this earthly toil on Dec. 25.
4. Probably the largest Christmas gift ever given was presented to the people of the United States in 1886. Name it.
5. The film ''White Christmas'' was made in the mid-1950s. The film's male stars are Bing Crosby and Dannie Kaye, but Kaye was a last-minute replacement for another actor who became ill and couldn't make the film. Who?
6. Wealthy English people couldn't be expected to cook and serve their own Christmas feasts, so servants were required to work on the holiday. It was traditional, however, that they be given leave on Dec. 26 to return to their own homes and visit parents, siblings and other relatives. Often the employers sent packages of leftovers from their feasts and other small gifts to be taken home by the vacationing servants. As a result, the day after Christmas is also a legal holiday in Britain. Religiously, Dec. 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen. What is the legal name for the holiday, in Britain?
7. There was a food which was illegal to make or to eat, except during the 12 Days of Christmas, in parts of rural England. On the other hand, if someone was able to eat some of this food on each of the 12 days, it was believed he could expect to become very wealthy or to have remarkably good luck during the coming year. Name the food.
8. Name the author who wrote a novel which described a land where ''It is always winter, yet it is never Christmas?''
9. Name the President of the U.S. who erected the first official White House Christmas tree.
10. Name an island in the Indian Ocean which is a possession of Australia. The majority of the people are Chinese in origin and Buddhist in religion, although all are Australian citizens. The chief product of the island is phosphate.
1. Ludwig or Louis Prang invented an inexpensive process of color printing and created a demand for it by beginning the tradition of sending Christmas greetings.
2. Obviously, anyone with the birthdate is a correct answer. Among the correct answers are these: Sir Isaac Newton, Clara Barton, Conrad Hilton, Humphrey Bogart, Cab Calloway, Anwar el-Sadat, Rod Serling, Little Richard, O'Kelly Isley (singer with the Isley Brothers), Ken Stabler (of the Oakland Raiders), Jimmy Buffett, Barbara Mandrell and Sissy Spacek.
3. Among those who passed on Christmas Day have been Emperor Yoshihito of Japan, W.C. Fields, singer Johnny Ace, Frederick Law Olmsted (planner of many parks including Central Park in New York City and many Buffalo-area parks), Charlie Chaplin, Joan Blondell, Archbishop Oscar Romero (shot by assassins while saying Christmas Mass in El Salvador), painter Joan Miro, New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, singer Dean Martin, child beauty queen Jon-Benet Ramsay, actor Denver Pyle, and Bryan MacLean of the rock and roll group ''The Byrds.''
4. The Statue of Liberty was a Christmas gift to the American people by the people of France in 1886. Originally just the hand holding the torch was sent over and displayed at a World's Fair in Philadelphia, and then gradually the entire statue arrived. The pedestal on which the statue stands on Liberty Island in the New York City Harbor was not part of the gift. It was constructed with funds contributed by Americans, including a campaign among school children, urging that each child contribute a dime toward the building of the pedestal. The technology which made possible the building of the huge statue, able to withstand gale-force winds in the windy harbor, was devised by Gustav Eiffel, who built another famous tower.
5. Originally Donald O'Connor was contracted to portray Bing Crosby's buddy in the film ''White Christmas.'' Danny Kaye was a last-minute substitute.
6. In England, Dec. 26 is called ''Boxing Day,'' because wealthy employers would send boxes of leftover food and unwanted clothing to their servants' families.
7. People could find themselves paying hefty fines if they made or ate mince pie outside the 12 days of Christmas, but if they could get a piece of the delicacy on each of the 12 days, they could expect good fortune in the coming year.
8. In C.S. Lewis's novel ''The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,'' the White Witch had ruled that it must always be winter in the Kingdom of Narnia, but it must never be Christmas.
9. Interestingly, there is a controversy about when the first official tree was erected. For many years, it was held that President Franklin Pierce had erected the first one, before the Civil War, probably in 1853. However, during the administration of the second President Bush, the White House website proclaimed that Caroline Harrison, first lady to President Benjamin Harrison, had raised the first official tree.
10. The island governed by Australia, where the people are mostly Chinese and Buddhist, is officially called Christmas Island.