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A sack full of little-known holiday facts

The Grinch stole the hearts of holiday movie lovers.
The Grinch stole the hearts of holiday movie lovers.

In the spirit of the season, I decided to spend a few hours scouring the Internet to find a fusillade of little-known festive holiday facts as a Christmas present to my always knowledge-hungry followers. I hope “yule” find the following as fascinating as I did, although even if they turn out to be duds, I suppose I at least won’t have to stand in the return lines on Saturday.

Sackful of Santas: If you go looking for ol’ St. Nick in Iceland, you’d better buy a scorecard. Parents there have to teach their children about not one, not two, but 13 Yule Lads or Yulemen, who take turns leaving goodies (or rotting potatoes for the brats) during the last 13 nights before Christmas Eve. Traditionally they were said to be the children of the mountain-dwelling trolls Gryla and Leppaluoi, who allegedly would leave their lair to scare (or even kidnap) misbehaving children before the holidays. Now, they are more benevolent, but still come with such creepy names as Doorway-Sniffer, Window-Peeper, Meat-Hook and Bowl-Licker.

Simply tree-mendous: Seattle, Wash., apparently still holds the record for the world’s tallest cut Christmas tree, according to a Christmas edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1950, the Northgate Shopping Center erected and decorated a 221-foot monster. More crowning achievements: A 113-foot, 7-inch snowman in Bethel, Maine, in 1999, a 106-by-49-foot Christmas stocking in London in 2007 and 13,000 Santas who came together for a 2007 selfie in Guildhall Square in Derry City, Northern Ireland.

Not so friendly: Artificial trees became popular in part because buyers thought they were doing the environment a favor by not cutting down real trees. But a 2009 study by a Montreal environmental consulting firm found that you’d have to reuse the same tree for more than 20 years for it to be “greener” than buying a live fir each year. The reason? Using a real tree produces just one-third of the carbon emissions created by an artificial tree over a typical six-year lifespan. Most fake trees also contain polyvinyl chloride, which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.

He quacks them up: Since 1960, it has become a tradition in Sweden for most families to gather around the TV and watch Donald Duck in the animated Walt Disney special, “From All of Us to All of You.”

What a waste: Hopefully, you won’t be less inclined to kiss under the mistletoe once you learn that the word roughly comes from the Germanic phrase “dung on a twig.” Turns out that the popular plant has a symbiotic relationship with a bird called the mistle thrush. The bird eats the berries, digests the seeds and then leaves its droppings to grow into new plants that will decorate next year’s holiday parties.

221 feet Talest Christmas tree erected in 1950 in a Seattle shopping center

2.1 billion Children under 18 in the world

Feeling Grinchy: The Grinch may be a green grump, but he probably laughs all the way to the bank. When it comes to box office, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” remains the top Christmas-related film at $260 million, far outdistancing “The Polar Express” at $183 million and “Elf” at $173 million.

Out-of-this-world concert: As they orbited the Earth on Dec. 16, 1965, Gemini 6 astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford reported seeing a UFO that looked a lot like Santa and his reindeer. Then the space cadets broke out a tiny harmonica and sleigh bells they had smuggled on board and began singing “Jingle Bells,” the first song broadcast from outer space.

Fab four: Speaking of Christmas hits, the Beatles are the only group to ever top the music charts in England on four Christmases: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963), “I Feel Fine” (1964), “Day Tripper” (1965) and “Hello, Goodbye” (1967). And even though some critics call it one of his poorer efforts, Paul McCartney still hauls in an estimated $400,000 each year in royalties for his 1979 hit “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Ladies only? Although Santa’s reindeer have such masculine names as Blitzen, Comet and Cupid, it’s likely he actually hitches female reindeer to his sleigh because many adult males lose their antlers in December. And if you were wondering, Norwegian scientists have theorized that Rudolph with his nose so bright may be suffering from a parasitic infection of the respiratory system.

In fine feather: Even in the 1850s, tree-huggers were calling for the conservation of the dwindling Old World fir tree forests. In response, German craftsmen came up with what some consider the first artificial tree fashioned from goose feathers. Similar products shipped to North America used metal wire trees adorned with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers that were often dyed green.

Quicker than a wink: According to UNICEF, there are 2.1 billion children under 18 in the world. Assuming an average of 2.5 children per household, that means Santa made about 842 million stops Thursday night, spending an average of two ten-thousandths of a second at each one, according to Roger Highfield in his book “The Physics of Christmas.” To do this, Rudolph and his mates would have had to accelerate away from each house at about 12.19 million miles per second squared. These quick takeoffs would turn mere mortals into something resembling “chunky salsa,” Highfield jokes, but Santa, of course, is now resting his tootsies back at the North Pole, preparing for next year.

Merry Christmas

Today’s trivia

Tip for next year: If you were to write Santa Claus in Canada, what postal code would you use?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Did you know St. Louis may have been responsible for giving the universe Darth Vader — or, at least, that voice in “Star Wars” we all came to know and hate? According to “Amazing St. Louis” by KMOX’s Charlie Brennan, actor James Earl Jones grew up in Michigan but spent his summers in the Gateway City with relatives. In 1944, the 13-year-old reportedly saw his first live stage show — “Naughty Marietta” — at the Muny, an event he described as “bliss” in his autobiography. Perhaps that memory eventually inspired him to switch from pre-med to theater during his days at the University of Michigan. Starting as a stage carpenter in 1953, he would go on to win two Tonys, two Emmys and an honorary Oscar in 2011. Jones, by the way, stuttered as a child but says he was advised to read Shakespeare aloud to overcome it.

While we’re on the subject of “Star Wars,” you might be surprised to learn that Sir Alec Guinness was far less than enthusiastic about his legacy as the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi. “Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film,” he said once during filming. “I like them well enough, but it’s not an acting job. The dialogue — which is lamentable — keeps being changed and only slightly improved.”

He eventually did call it a “vivid experience,” but concluded, “I shrivel up every time someone mentions ‘Star Wars’ to me.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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