Rosemary, the red-nosed reindeer?

Malcolm Smith explodes some seasonal myths

Christmas may be commercialised, but it is surprising how some of its age-old associates remain as commonplace, and as fresh, as they ever have been. Yet, in reality, what a bunch of Christmas interlopers they are. Mistletoe, a hangover from pagan rituals, is in decline in the wild. Rudolph the reindeer is not Rudolph at all, but Rosemary (and she doesn't have a red nose). Robins are so aggressive they hardly deserve any place in a Christian festival. And the Norway spruce, that most popular of Christmas trees, is a virtual newcomer.

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits