Q: What is "Stir-up Sunday"? -- E.R., Derby, Kan.
A: Stir-up Sunday is an informal term referring to the fifth Sunday before Christmas, or the Sunday before the season of Advent. The term comes from the opening in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549: "Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the will of thy faithful people."
According to tradition, it was good luck to stir the Christmas pudding, and each member of the family participated while making a secret wish. The day set aside for this task was called Stir-up Sunday.
Q: What was the first Christmas carol? -- K.M.T., Odessa, Texas
A: One of the earliest hymns dates to the fourth century -- "Jesus refulsit omnium" ("Jesus, light of all the nations"), composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers.
During the following century, many more Christmas hymns were introduced, mostly in the Gregorian style. In the 12th century, Francis of Assisi began to incorporate Christmas carols into church services. He also encouraged others to write Christmas songs. During the Renaissance, Italian composers introduced less secular, more upbeat songs.
Q: What is the first American Christmas carol? -- L.I.L., Lompoc, Calif.
A: The first American Christmas carol was written by a Canadian missionary named Jean de Brebeuf in 1643. When the future saint wrote it, it was called "Jesus Is Born." You may now hear it called "The Huron Carol."
Q: Is St. Nicholas patron saint of anyone or anything? -- P.N., Provo, Utah
A: Yes! St. Nicholas may be the patron saint of more things than any other saint. Among the list, he is a patron saint of children, sailors and ships, prisoners unjustly jailed, bakers, pawnbrokers and shopkeepers. He is the patron saint of Amsterdam and Moscow.
St. Nicholas was a fourth-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra. He was famous for his generous gifts to the poor.
Q: Around the world, Christmas is known by different names. How did we get to know the day as Christmas and not some thing else? -- O.Y.G., Fair field, Calif.
A: In Old English, the day was known as "Cristes maesse," meaning "Christ's mass." It stuck!
Q: What is wassail? -- Y.M., Salisbury, Md.
A: There are many different recipes for wassail. Wassail is a punch made of strong ale, beer, wine or even fruit juice. Often it is spiced with nutmeg and ginger and sweetened with honey. The drink is generally simmered to give the spices a chance to mix, and it is usually served hot. However, I have also seen cold wassail. The drink is popular in northern Europe and in the British Isles.
"Wassail" also refers to the salute, "waes hail," which is Old English for "you be healthy."
Q: What can you tell me about Clement Moore, the author of "A Visit From Saint Nicholas"? Was he born in England? -- O.M.T., Roanoke, Va.
A: Clement Clarke Moore was born in 1779 in New York City. The home he grew up in would have covered several blocks of current-day Chelsea. He was the only son of Benjamin Moore, president of Columbia College (now Columbia University) and bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York. His mother was heiress Charity Clarke. Although Moore was home-schooled in his early years, he went on to graduate from Columbia in 1798 and earned his master's degree in 1801. Moore was a well-known and respected scholar.
Moore married Catherine Elizabeth Taylor in 1813, and he wrote "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" for his children in 1822. The poem helped create a new American idea of Santa Claus. Prior to this poem, the idea of St. Nicholas varied widely. Moore died in 1863, just days before his 84th birthday.
Q: I have an old newspaper with a copy of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," but its author is listed as "Anonymous." Why wasn't Clement Moore given credit? -- P.L., Boynton Beach, Fla.
A: When Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) wrote the poem, also known as "The Night Before Christmas," in 1822, he did so to read to his children on Christmas Eve. A family friend sent the poem to a newspaper, which printed it. Before long it was being printed in newspapers and magazines all over the country, and each one listed the author as being anonymous.
It wasn't until 1844 that Moore admitted to having penned the poem. Asked why it took him so long to name himself as the author, Moore said he was afraid of being ridiculed for writing a child's poem when he was supposed to be a literary scholar.
Q: I was only a little kid in the early 1960s when my folks bought an aluminum Christmas tree. I remember there was a spotlight with a revolving colored disc that changed the light shining on the tree. One year the motor burned out, and the wheel was set to blue. From time to time I have seen aluminum trees and they are really ugly, but I have some fond memories of them. When were they introduced? -- K.M., Spring Hill, Fla.
A: In December 1958, the toy sales manager of the Aluminum Specialty Co. of Manitowoc, Wis., saw a metal Christmas tree in Chicago as part of a commercial display. That tree, made by Modern Coatings Inc., was too expensive for retail sales and far too bulky. The following year, Aluminum Specialty introduced a smaller and much cheaper version of the tree, called an Evergleam, which was a giant hit at a midyear toy show. Sales of the trees peaked in the mid-1960s. Aluminum Specialty discontinued making the trees in the early '70s.
Today there is a renewed interest in this holiday tradition. I suspect many people find the aluminum trees conjure up warm and nostalgic memories of Christmases past. I checked a popular online auction site and found basic trees selling for around $35, with the fanciest ones selling for well over $300.
Q: Where is the original draft of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"? -- C.L., Manchester, N.H.
A: The manuscript of "A Christmas Carol" is located at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City on Madison Avenue and 36th Street. The 66-page draft -- the only manuscript of the story -- is heavily revised in Dickens' own handwriting.
Q: I'm planning a trip to London. Is the home of my favorite author, Charles Dickens, restored and open to the public? -- W.U., Elmira, N.Y.
A: You are in luck. Dickens' former home at 48 Doughty St. is now the Charles Dickens Museum. The home/museum was just extensively restored, and it is easy to get to by public transportation. If you have access to a computer, you can take a virtual tour at dickensmuseum.com. Of course, the virtual tour is not the same as being there, so by all means put a visit to the museum on your list.
Q: From which movie did the line "You'll shoot your eye out" originate? -- K.T., Tigard, Ore.
A: The line comes from the 1983 classic "A Christmas Story." Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants one thing for Christmas -- an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle! His mother (Melinda Dillon) and the department store Santa warn him, "You'll shoot your eye out." Darren McGavin played Ralphie's father in the cult classic.
Q: In the movie "Miracle on 34th Street," the character played by John Payne explained what faith was. Do you know the line? -- I.F., Evans, Ga.
A: "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to." -- Fred Gailey (John Payne), "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947).
The film also starred Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood.
Q: "White Christmas" is one of my favorite holiday songs. I have never seen the movie of the same name. What is it about? -- B.G., Killeen, Texas
A: "White Christmas" stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. After getting out of the Army together, Crosby and Kaye learn their former general, now a ski resort owner, is facing financial disaster because of the lack of snow. They jump into action and host a giant TV production and save the day. The film was released in 1954.
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