Surprising Things Queen Elizabeth II Owns

Eddie Mulholland, WPA Pool/Getty Images
Eddie Mulholland, WPA Pool/Getty Images

On June 9, 2018, Queen Elizabeth II will be feted as part of Trooping the Colour, an event that has marked the official birthday of the reigning British sovereign for 270 years. April 21, the Queen's actual birthday, is also celebrated as such. Of course, having two birthdays is just one of the many perks that come with being the head of the royal family. From bats to Bentleys, here are 20 surprising things owned by Queen Elizabeth II.

Three Crown Dependencies

Sunrise on the rocky coast of the Isle of Man with a lighthouse
Stephen Meadows iStock via Getty Images

The Queen is the head of state of the United Kingdom, of course, as well as of 14 overseas territories (including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands) and the 16 so-called Commonwealth realms (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand). But as the current reigning monarch, the Queen also technically owns three British island territories—namely, the Isle of Man, and the two largest of the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey—which together comprise her “Crown Dependencies.” The islands are all self-governing, so the Queen’s role in each one is largely ceremonial. Nevertheless, the arrangements linking these islands to the British Crown are ancient ones—so ancient, in fact, that their legislature has never been updated to make an allowance for a female monarch, and as a consequence the Queen is technically holds the titles of Lord (not Lady) of Mann in the Isle of Man, and Duke (not Duchess) of Normandy in Jersey and Guernsey.

An Aberdeen Angus Cow

While on an official visit to Canada in 2005, the Queen was presented with an Aberdeen Angus cow at the Calgary Stampede agricultural show. Sadly, she wasn’t able to bring her new gift back home to Buckingham Palace, so the cow remained in Calgary as the founding member of the Stampede’s own herd of cattle.

Two Tortoises From the Seychelles

One gift the queen was able to bring home with her from her foreign travels was a pair of native Aldabra giant tortoises, presented to her during an official visit to the Seychelles in 1972. Originally housed at London Zoo, the zoo has since rehomed the animals—which, given that they can reportedly live to more than 200 years old, will likely outlive the Queen herself.

Her Own Flag

A violet flag with yellow E in the center, topped by a yellow crown and ringed by yellow flowers
chelovek iStock via Getty Images

The Queen has her own coat of arms of course, and various rules and regulations govern the use of the Britain’s Union Jack and the Royal Standard flag in her presence. But she also has her own personal flag—depicting a crowned letter E in a circle of roses, on a navy blue background—which the royal household can opt to use on any building or vehicle in which the Queen is staying or traveling. Reportedly, the flag was designed in 1960 at the Queen’s own request to symbolize her as an individual, separate from her role as sovereign or head of state.

Four Guinness World Records

The Queen has been presented with and currently holds four Guinness World Record titles: she is officially the world’s longest reigning queen, the world’s oldest reigning monarch, the world’s wealthiest queen, and appears on the money of more sovereign countries than any other person.

A Gold Blue Peter Badge

In case you’ve never heard of it, Blue Peter is a long-running BBC children’s television program that, unbelievably, has been broadcast practically every week in the UK since 1958. As such, it’s now something of a cornerstone in British culture—not to mention the longest running children’s television program in the entire world.

As absolutely anyone from Britain will know, the show awards badges (bearing its famous sailboat logo) for all sorts of achievements, ranging from viewer competitions to fundraising activities, sporting achievements and conservationism. But in 2002, the program awarded its highest honor—a gold Blue Peter badge—to Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate her 50 years on the throne. Other gold badge honorees include JK Rowling, Steven Spielberg, Sir David Attenborough, and both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who were awarded their gold badges in 2017 in recognition of their work raising awareness of children’s mental health.

The British Seabed

A sea bed at low tide off the coast of England
HaraldBiebel iStock via Getty Images

Probably the weirdest thing on this list (and that’s saying something), the Queen technically owns all of the UK's territorial seabed through the British Crown Estate, from the mean low water mark out to a distance of 12 nautical miles. That also means that the Crown owns…

An Offshore Wind Farm

Specifically, Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, seven miles off the coast of Kent in the North Sea—which on its opening in 2010 was the largest offshore wind farm in the world. In fact, the Crown owns quite a number of offshore green-energy projects, including Europe’s largest tidal power plant, currently under construction in the Pentland Firth off the far northern tip of Scotland.

The UK's Continental Shelf

The 1964 Continental Shelf Act decreed that the Crown, as an extension of its ownership of the seabed, could lay claim to the UK’s continental shelf, up to a distance of 200 nautical miles in some places. The Queen ultimately bears rights to the subsoil and minerals that lie in the UK’s marine shelf, while the government lays claim to the coal, oil and gas deposits.

All of Scotland's Gold Mines

Nuggets of gold weighed on a golden scale platform
artisteer iStock via Getty Images

The Queen also owns the rights to all of Scotland’s gold mining activities. Which is potentially very bad news for the anonymous prospector who discovered Britain’s biggest ever gold nugget—worth at least £50,000—in a Scottish river in 2018. It remains unclear whether he sought permission to remove the gold from the river in which he found it; without it, the gold should legally automatically pass into the ownership of the Crown.

25000 Acres of Forest

The Crown Estate also owns around a quarter of a million acres of rural land across the UK, most of which is used or leased for agriculture and mineral extraction. Around 8% of the Crown’s rural holdings are forested, however—meaning the queen owns and controls roughly 25000 acres (95 square miles) of British woodland.

Trafalgar Square

A fountain in front of a large columned building on Trafalgar Square
IakovKalinin iStock via Getty Images

As well as owning much of Regent Street, Trafalgar Square—home to Nelson’s Column and the British National Gallery—is also owned by the Crown. Why? The site now occupied by one of London’s most famous landmarks was originally the location of the royal stables and falconry mews.

Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress

As a part of the Royal Collection, the Queen also owns Queen Victoria’s wedding dress—a cream and white silk, satin and lace ensemble that proved so popular it helped to establish white as the customary color of bride’s gowns.

Henry VIII's Armor

A large set of full Medieval armor displayed on an armored stuffed horse
artisteer iStock via Getty Images

Another item from the Royal Collection, the queen owns an impressive suit of armor produced sometime in the 1540s, and once owned by Henry VIII. To accommodate the king’s increasing waist size, the armor was at some point widened with a 2-inch section of plate metal, inserted and riveted into the back piece.

Her Own Tartan

Thanks to their Scottish roots, the British royal family as a whole have their own style of tartan—named “Royal Stewart”—which has apparently been the official tartan of members of the current British royal line since the late 11th century. As the reigning monarch, however, the queen herself is the sole owner of a grey, black, and red pattern of tartan, named “Balmoral,” that was designed by her great-great-grandfather Prince Albert in 1853. Even fellow members of the royal family technically have to ask the queen’s permission to wear it.

Four Million Square Feet of Retail Space

Through the British Crown’s real estate empire, the Queen owns or part owns 14 retail parks and three shopping centers—totaling some 4.3 million square feet of retail space.

A Baptismal Font

In 1840, Queen Victoria commissioned a silver-gilt font for the baptism of her first child, Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal. The Lily Font, as it is known, is now part of the Royal Collection, under the ownership of the Queen, and has been used at the baptisms of almost all members of the royal family ever since.

The World's Largest Clear-Cut Diamond

Weighing in at 530.2 carats, the Great Star of Africa—properly known as Cullinan I (after South African mining magnate Sir Thomas Cullinan)—is the world’s largest clear-cut diamond, worth somewhere in the region of $51 million. In 1910, it and several other stones cut from a gigantic diamond unearthed in South Africa five years earlier were presented to Mary of Teck (the consort of George V and Elizabeth II’s grandmother).

Back in the UK, the diamond was incorporated into the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, the three-feet long staff held by the monarch during their coronation. As such the diamond is now part of the Crown Jewels, which technically remain under the ownership of the Crown.

A National Collection of Mulberries

Close up of black, red, and white mulberries on a branch
syaber iStock via Getty Images

The site now occupied by Buckingham Palace was once (partly) a vast mulberry grove planted by James I in the 17th century in a failed attempt to rear his own silkworms. King James might have been unsuccessful, but the palace’s connection to these notoriously difficult-to-cultivate fruits lives on: in 2000, the Queen personally requested the head gardener at Buckingham Palace to plant a definitive collection of mulberry bushes—some 29 different species in total—that now comprise the plant’s official British National collection. 

1. ALL THE SWANS ON THE RIVER THAMES

 Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Swan Marker David Barber (red jacket), watches from the steam launch 'Alaska' as a swan upper places a swan back into the river during a swan upping census on the River Thames on July 20, 2009 near Windsor, England
Sang Tan, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Though she's more of a Corgi lover, Queen Elizabeth II has quite the menagerie of pets—especially if you consider the fact that she technically owns (or at least co-owns) all of the unclaimed mute swans on open water in England and Wales, though she "only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries." She shares ownership of the birds with the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, an arrangement that dates back to the 15th century (back when the animals were considered a delicacy). So just how many swans does the Queen have? We'll know soon enough: each year, they're counted during a five-day event known as the Swan Upping. This year's event will take place from July 16 to July 20 on the Thames between Sunbury and Abingdon, England.

2. A PAIR OF DORGIS

Queen Elizabeth II speaks with Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key at a audience held at Windsor Castle on October 29, 2015 in Windsor, England
Steve Parsons, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Speaking of Corgis: In April, it was reported that Willow—the Queen's last Corgi—had passed away at the age of 14. It marked the end of a canine era for Elizabeth, who has regularly been photographed surrounded by members of her beloved breed over the past 75 years. (She and her sister, Princess Margaret, were gifted their first Corgi—whom they named Dookie—in 1933.) While she confirmed in 2015 that there will be no more Corgis in her future (she doesn't want to leave any behind), she isn't dog-less. She still has two "dorgis"—a cross between a corgi and a dachshund—named Vulcan and Candy, who can regularly be found at her side.

3. ALL THE DOLPHINS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

A pair of dolphins
iStock

Dolphins and sturgeons and whales, oh my. Much like the aforementioned swans, the Queen's got a solid claim on many of the country's aquatic creatures. A statute from 1324, which originated during the reign of King Edward II, stated that, "… The king shall have wreck of the sea throughout the realm, whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm, except in certain places privileged by the king." The law still stands today and covers not just whales and sturgeons but dolphins and porpoises, too, when they are captured within three miles of the U.K.

Until recently the Crown also laid claim to the bulk of Scotland's wild crustaceans, but that now rests with Marine Scotland.

4. NEARLY ALL OF LONDON'S REGENT STREET

People, cars and double-decker bus passing by London's Regent Street
iStock

Located in the heart of London's West End, Regent Street is one of the world's most famous roads. Measuring approximately 1.25 miles in length, the street runs through both Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus and attracts more than 7.5 million visitors per year—and it's all part of the Crown Estate, meaning it legally belongs to Her Majesty. (Though she's not entitled to any of the royalties from the many storefronts that inhabit it.)

5. HALF OF THE UNITED KINGDOM'S SHORELINE

Red telephone box illuminated at sunrise on seaside beach in England
iStock

Cityscapes aren't the only real estate in the Queen's portfolio. The Crown Estate also owns "just under half of the coastline around England, Wales, and Northern Ireland."

6. SIX ROYAL RESIDENCES

A photo of Windsor Castle
iStock

One thing the royal family is not lacking in is places to call home. While Buckingham Palace—and its 775 rooms—is the Queen's main abode, her portfolio of lavish properties also includes Windsor Castle (the world's largest occupied castle); Holyrood Palace, a 12th-century monastery-turned-royal palace in Edinburgh, Scotland; and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, which sits on 100 acres. The Sandringham Estate, where the royal family spends Christmas, and Balmoral Castle, her favorite summer estate, are two of the Queen's personal possessions (she inherited them from her father).

7. MORE THAN 200 LAUNER HANDBAGS

Queen Elizabeth II holds her Launer black handbag during a reception following the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery during their 70th anniversary parade at Hyde Park on October 19, 2017 in London, England
Hannah McKay, WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Queen is rarely seen without a handbag, which she actually uses to send signals to her staff. But she doesn't carry just any old bag: She prefers purses from luxury London designer Launer—the Royale (appropriately) and Traviata styles are her favorites—and the brand's CEO estimates that she has about 200 of them. At approximately $2500 a pop, that's a mighty pricey purse collection.

8. A PRIVATE ATM

Person getting cash from an ATM.
iStock

It's doubtful that the Queen has much need to dig through her Launer purse in search of a tenner. But if the need for cash arose, there's a private money machine in the basement of Buckingham Palace, courtesy of Coutts bank, that's specifically for members of the royal family.

9. THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE AT WIMBLEDON

 The Duke of Kent (L) and Queen Elizabeth II watch Andy Murray of Great Britain in action against Jarkko Nieminen of Finland on Day Four of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 24, 2010 in London,
Oli Scarff, WPA Pool/Getty Images

In 2010, Her Majesty stunned the crowd at Wimbledon when she showed up to watch Andy Murray play. It was the first time she had attended the world-famous tennis tournament in more than 30 years. She may not be a regular spectator, but she still commands the best seat in the house: the Royal Box, which is tucked just behind the court's south baseline.

"There is a view, among those who have attended the royal box, that it is one of the most special experiences in sport," Alexandra Willis, the head of communications for the All England Club, told The New York Times. "It's because of the fact that it's by invitation only—you can't just decide it's something you want to attend." Though the Queen may not be the biggest fan, the Duchess of Cambridge is a frequent fixture in the Royal Box.

10. THE TOWER OF LONDON

The Tower of London
iStock

Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London—better known as simply the Tower of London—is yet another one of the Queen's possessions in right of the Crown. The property, which dates to the 11th century, has played an enormous role in royal history and is still one of the city's most visited tourist attractions. And it all belongs to Queen Elizabeth—including the Crown Jewels and, by extension, the Tower's famed flock of ravens.

11. 150,000 WORKS OF ART (MANY OF THEM PRICELESS)

 A member of staff at the Queens Gallery views a painting in the Royal Collection on March 13, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland
Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

The Queen's position puts her in charge of The Royal Collection, one of the world's largest and most impressive art collections (though she doesn't own it personally, it is held in trust by her). Of the million-plus pieces included in the collection are approximately 150,000 artworks from some of the great masters (think Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael). While some of these pieces are displayed in museums or otherwise made available for public viewing, many of them hang in royal palaces and estates.

12. QUEEN VICTORIA'S SKETCHBOOK

An engraving of Albert and Victoria in wedding clothes
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In addition to priceless works of art, The Royal Collection also features many personal artifacts from kings and queens past. Among the most impressive: Queen Victoria's sketchbook. (Elizabeth is Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter.)

13. A WINNING TEAM OF RACE HORSES

Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (1930 - 2002), and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, riding at Ascot Racecourse, UK, 27th June 1968
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Horses have long been one of the Queen's great passions—though it goes beyond riding them. She's also a savvy investor when it comes to race horses, and is said to have approximately 30 horses in training. As of late 2017, according to Harper's Bazaar, her impressive roster of race horses have earned the Queen close to $9 million over the past three decades with their 451 race wins. Her first victory came in 1949, when Monaveen—a horse she co-owned with her mom—won at Fontwell Park.

14. A $10 MILLION-PLUS CAR COLLECTION

 Queen Elizabeth II, Captain-General of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, oversees a Royal Review from an open-top Range Rover on the occasion of their Tercentenary at Knighton Down on May 26, 2016 in Lark Hill, England
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Given that she served as a truck driver and mechanic during World War II, perhaps it's unsurprising that the Queen is a bit of a gearhead. While she's most often seen tooling around in her beloved Land Rover Defender—she's owned about 30 of them so far—her collection of cars goes way beyond that and is estimated to be worth about $10 million. Among some of the models in her collection: three Rolls-Royces, two Bentleys, and a custom Range Rover LWB Landaulet that features the royal flag and an open-air top (so that she can wave to her adoring public).

15. A TIARA COVERED IN 1333 DIAMONDS

 The Diamond Diadem is displayed in an exhibition in Buckingham Palace celebrating the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty The Queens Coronation on July 25, 2013 in London, England
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

Any Queen worth her castle has got a great tiara, but Elizabeth has a lot of them. Among the many pieces of glittering headgear she inherited is the Diamond Diadem, which might be her most famous piece of jewelry. It's set with 1333 diamonds, including a four-carat yellow diamond in the center. While the Queen has worn it to every State Opening of Parliament since 1952, the piece was actually made for George IV to wear at his lavish 1821 coronation.

16. A MASSIVE FABERGÉ COLLECTION

 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh are presented with a gold musical Faberge style egg by the Sultan of Oman, before a State Banquet at his Palace on November 26, 2010 in Muscat, Oman
John Stillwell, Pool/Getty Images

While you may be content to amass Beanie Babies or Precious Moments figurines, the Queen has a much more befitting collecting habit: Fabergé eggs and accessories. Also part of the Royal Collection, the collection was started by Queen Alexandra and Edward VII around the turn of the century and is now estimated to include 600 pieces. Many of the pieces have been put on display to the public, including a blue cigarette case that was given to Edward VII by one of his many mistresses, Alice Keppel. Following the king's death, his widow, Queen Alexandra, returned the item to Keppel.

17. WESTMINSTER ABBEY

London's Westminster Abbey
iStock

Westminster Abbey has played an integral part in some of the most important moments in royal history. In addition to being the setting for every coronation since 1066, it's hosted 16 royal weddings and hundreds of royal funerals, memorial services, and beyond. Westminster Abbey is known a "royal peculiar," meaning that it belongs directly to the monarch, not a diocese.

18. HYDE PARK

Italian Gardens at Hyde Park in London
iStock

With so many royal residences to choose from, the Queen is probably set in terms of green space. But if she ever wanted to stretch her legs a bit and mingle with some commoners, she owns some of England's most famous wide-open spaces, including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, The Regent's Park and Primrose Hill, and The Green Park.

19. A GOLD RECORD

 Rod Stewart (L) Ozzy Osbourne (2nd L) sing with Cliff Richard (2nd R) and Paul McCartney (R) sing together during 'Party at the Palace' in London 03 June 2002
ADRIAN DENNIS, AFP/Getty Images

We may never know if the Queen's got vocal chops, but we know that HM is the recipient of at least one gold record. In 2002, the royal family marked Elizabeth's 50th year on the throne with a Golden Jubilee celebration, complete with a star-studded concert dubbed the "Party at the Palace." EMI later released a CD of the concert, which sold 100,000 copies within its first week in release. The Queen was sent a golden record in honor of this achievement, making her the only member of the royal family to earn that rock star accolade.

20. A BAT COLONY

A colony of bats
iStock

The Queen is obviously a devoted animal lover, which might explain why she doesn't mind sharing Balmoral Castle with the colony of bats that has taken up residence in the property's main hall. She apparently likes to catch them with a butterfly net as they dart around her summer home.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
arlutz73/iStock via Getty Images

Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
GreenArtPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER