Rosemary, the red-nosed reindeer?
Malcolm Smith explodes some seasonal myths
Saturday 21 December 1996
Reindeer: In 1823, when Professor Clement Clarke-Moore of New York State published his poem, "The Night Before Christmas" in The Troy Sentinel, he couldn't have chosen a more inappropriate animal to pull Santa's voluminous sleigh. The legend of Rudolph was born. Red-nosed from the cold air, he and his companions had to fly to keep their parcel deliveries on time.
But, as any Lapp worth his seal meat knows, reindeer can't be hurried. Adapted to a cold life, they overheat all too easily, panting and salivating after less than a kilometre at full gallop. In the mild British Christmas climate, a few streets at a fast trot would do them in.
Reindeer have special noses. Covered in hair, they stay warm and dry because their design ensures that the air they breathe is heated up, and the exhaled air cooled, conserving body heat and water vapour. However cold it becomes, they don't become even the slightest bit pink. Red, never.
If antlers are vital when the sleigh crosses that winter wonderland, Rudolph is out of a job. After the autumn mating season, male reindeer shed their antlers. But the females retain theirs. So, come Christmas Eve, your children's presents may be hauled by Ruth, Rosemary or Rachel - but not by Rudolph.
Mistletoe: Worshipped by the Druids, mistletoe has long been a part of the Christmas festivities. But for how much longer? It is a parasite with no roots of its own, and its fate now hangs on the future of old orchard apple trees.
In 1957, England had 26,000 hectares of dessert apple orchards. Now, barely 10,000 hectares remain. Not so in France. The French have retained many of their old orchards and their mistletoe flourishes. Napoleon gave it a helping hand by planting poplars along French roadsides, essentially to shade his soldiers from the midday sun. Perhaps it was also to supply the infantry with sprigs of mistletoe to give to their sweethearts at Christmas.
Robins: There are more than four million pairs of robins in this country, and the bird was ranked sixth in the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden Birdwatch survey this year.
Although they look chirpy on our Christmas cards, ironically robins are less likely to survive cold winters than many other birds because they depend so much on ground-living prey. But, because a pair frequently rears two or three broods each summer, numbers recover quickly. And robins are fiercely territorial, which does allow them to live at high densities, particularly in woods, where up to 66 pairs have been recorded in a square kilometre.
The much loved robin has been little molested over the centuries, with a couple of exceptions. In the mid-1800s they became an epicurean treat, and, in the 1890s, a millinery adornment: the wings - or even the whole bird - were used to decorate hats.
Fir: Thanks to Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert - who made the Christmas tree popular in Britain - around five million fir trees are sold here each year. Nearly three-quarters are Norway spruce, a tree that is not even native to these shores, though it is an abundant forest tree across northern Europe, from Scandinavia eastwards. Around one in 16 of the commercial trees planted in Britain are Norway spruce. But a plantation - where the trees are planted close together to spur their upward growth - is a pale reflection of a natural spruce forest. The trees of northern forests - an inspiration for composers such as Jean Sibelius - grow up to 180ft and are accompanied by pines, birches and aspen and a plethora of mosses, flowers and lichens. Our plantations of quick growers (a Norway can be cut for Christmas in seven years) are so dense that few other plants survive on the ground beneath.
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Power of Nepal earthquake was equivalent to 20 huge atomic bombs
Nepal earthquake video: Terrifying footage shows moment avalanche hit Everest Base Camp
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...
£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...
£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...
£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...