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A merry little Cristes Maesse

We've all had one of those moments during the holiday season. You're standing over the punch bowl at your great-aunt's Christmas party, and suddenly you're stuck making conversation with someone you've never seen before and never had the slightest inclination to meet. What now?

Well, topics for discussion are all around you -- that mistletoe hanging over the door, the carols playing softly over the radio, the poinsettias adorning the windowsill. Where did these things all come from? How did they get connected to Christmas? And, most importantly, who let Cousin Ralph in the backdoor with that fruitcake?

> Back to Basics

For being such a popular holiday, relatively little is known about Christmas. Its name comes from the Old English "Cristes maesse," meaning Christ's Mass. For those of you who have already written your 212th Christmas card (the first was created in 1843 by artist John Calcott Horsley), the abbreviation X-mas is also available (you can thank the ancient Greeks for that -- X is the letter Chi in the Greek alphabet, which handily enough is the first letter of Christ's name). But be careful how you greet people during this holiday season. Some priests in Australia, dissatisfied with the customary "Merry Christmas," which they believe carries connotations of being drunk, have adopted "Happy Christmas" as their salutation of choice.

> If It Ain't Broke --

Sometimes the worst things in life can come packed with wonderful surprises. No holiday teaches us this more than good old X-mas. Take the story of possibly the most famous Christmas song ever. It was Christmas Eve 1818, and an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr was informed that his organ was broken and would not be repaired in time for Mass that night. Devastated, he did what any self-respecting 19th century Austrian priest would do and busted out his guitar. After a long day spent strumming miserably and bemoaning the silent night he and his congregation were going to have to face, Father Joseph, along with choir director Franz Gruber, came up with a musical solution. Later that evening, "Silent Night" made its first public appearance, sung by a choir and accompanied by the guitar.

> Nutty As A Fruitcake

How the fruitcake, called a "geological homemade cake" by Charles Dickens, came to be associated with Christmas is uncertain. Some sources assert that there is really only one fruitcake in the world, which gets passed around to a different unsuspecting family every year (thank you, Johnny Carson.) Others claim that the fruitcake (or "plum cake", as it was sometimes called) was first given out to poor women who sang carols in the streets of 18th century England. That's right -- these women were dirt poor, freezing their fingers off out in the street on Christmas Eve, and people gave them fruitcake. Doesn't seem right to me either.

Caitlin Moran is a junior at Attica.

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