11 Things You Might Not Know About the Grand Canyon

iStock.com/SumikoPhoto
iStock.com/SumikoPhoto

Whether you’ve made the trek yourself or seen it on a postcard, the Grand Canyon is one of the most instantly recognizable sights in the United States. But how well do you really know the Colorado River’s most famous handiwork? Here are 11 facts about the Grand Canyon, which Congress declared a U.S. National Park on February 26, 1919.

1. The Grand Canyon is not the world's deepest canyon.

Let’s clear up this misconception right off the bat. The Arizona landmark may well be the world’s grandest canyon, but it’s not the deepest. Agreeing on how to measure the depth of gorges is a surprisingly difficult task, but depending on who you ask, that distinction goes to Peru’s Cotahuasi Canyon, which is over 11,000 feet deep, or Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Gorge. The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is just one mile deep.

2. It isn't the deepest canyon in the U.S., either

A view of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
iStock.com/TraceRouda

The Grand Canyon can’t claim the domestic championship: Hells Canyon has been carved by the Snake River along the border of Oregon and Idaho and drops a half a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon.

3. The Grand Canyon's age is tough to pin down.

The Grand Canyon
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Like measuring depth, figuring out a canyon’s age is not as easy as you might think. Until recently, estimates pegged the Grand Canyon’s age at 6 million years. It turns out that the answer may not be that straightforward, though. In the last decade, controversy has erupted in scientific circles over just how many candles should be on the geologic marvel’s birthday cake. Attempts to analyze the minerals within the canyon led to the conclusion that the canyon may be more like 70 million years old.

What makes answering what seems like a simple question so difficult? The Grand Canyon may not have been carved in one fell swoop by the Colorado River. Instead, one hypothesis posits that the canyon may have formed in pieces over time, with parts of it dating back as many as 70 million years, but with the connected canyon we know and love today only emerging in the last 6 million years.

4. The Hopi consider the Grand Canyon to be a gateway to the afterlife.

A view from the rim of the Grand Canyon
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Referred to as Öngtupqa in the Hopi language, the Grand Canyon carries great spiritual significance for the Native American tribe that has long inhabited the region. Upon death, a Hopi is believed to pass westward through the sipapuni, or “place of emergence”—a dome of mineral deposits that sits upstream from the union of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River inside the canyon—on his or her journey into the afterlife.

5. Temperatures vary greatly between the top and bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The sun sets over the Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Point.
iStock.com/jamesvancouver

A trek from the peak of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, which stands about 8000 feet above sea level, to its bottom a mile down may see a traveler experience temperature swings of more than 25ºF. Summer highs in the depths of the gorge can exceed 100ºF, and winter lows at the crest can dip to 0ºF.

6. The first Europeans saw the Grand Canyon in 1540.

Ribbon Falls in the Grand Canyon
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

After thousands of years of inhabitation by Native American groups, the Grand Canyon welcomed its first European visitor in the 16th century. Aided by Hopi locals, Spanish conquistador García López de Cárdenas led an exploration of the grounds in 1540, even sending three soldiers down to explore the canyon’s depths. The trek didn’t last very long: The soldiers were overcome by thirst, possibly because the Hopi intentionally safeguarded their valued Colorado River from the travelers’ reach.

7. Subsequent European visitors took their time returning to the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River snakes through the Grand Canyon.
iStock.com/kojihirano

After this initial contact didn’t reveal any great riches in the area, there was little urgency to return on the part of the Spanish. Europeans didn’t make their second visit until 1776, when Spanish priests Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante happened upon the canyon while attempting to find a route from Santa Fe to their Catholic mission in Monterey, California. In the very same year, another Spanish missionary, Francisco Garcés, took in the canyon during a largely unsuccessful attempt to convert the local Havasupai to Christianity.

8. Explorers of European descent didn’t navigate to the bottom of the Grand Canyon until 1869.

A vintage map of Grand Canyon National Park
iStock.com/Pontuse

In 1869, seven years after losing his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War, John Wesley Powell led nine men—including a printer for the Rocky Mountain News, an 18-year-old mule driver and bullwhacker, and Powell’s own brother—on a thousand-mile mission down the Colorado River and its tributaries and through the Grand Canyon. Only six members of the team would complete the expedition, but Powell returned in 1871 with congressional backing and an 11-man team that included scientists. That trip produced the first maps of the Colorado River.

9. Teddy Roosevelt used a loophole to protect the Grand Canyon.

Tourists stand at Mather Point
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Roosevelt needed just one visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903 before he decided that the marvel should be protected. Unfortunately, it was beyond his authority to designate an area as a national park without congressional approval. To sidestep what he predicted would be an uncooperative Congress, Roosevelt took the long way around. In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison had established a forest preserve in the area, and so Roosevelt was able to add considerably more protection in 1906 by using a presidential proclamation to designate the area as the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. Two years later, he declared the area a national monument. The area was safe, but even then, Roosevelt couldn’t get the green light to create the Grand Canyon National Park—formal approval didn’t come until 1919.

10. The Grand Canyon was home to an early "instant photo" business.

The Grand Canyon at sunset
iStock.com/anharris

Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb devoted their lives to photographing natural beauty, and in setting up a studio on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1906, they found a savvy business opportunity as well. From their studio at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, the brothers would snap photographs of tourists as they departed for the canyon’s bottom on mules. When the tourists made their way back up to the rim that evening, the brothers would be ready to sell them developed prints documenting their journey.

11. The Grand Canyon was the site of a grand hoax in 1909.

The Grand Canyon at sunset
iStock.com/IvanKuzmin

On April 5, 1909, the Arizona Gazette detailed the findings of two archaeologists who claimed to have discovered traces of either an ancient Tibetan or Ancient Egyptian civilization in an underground tunnel network within the Grand Canyon. The story of ancient artifacts like copper and gold urns and mummified bodies discovered by two affiliates of the Smithsonian caused quite a stir, but it unraveled quickly. The Smithsonian denied any knowledge of the pair of scientists, and subsequent searches failed to uncover the “nearly inaccessible” cavern the (possibly fictitious) duo claimed to have found. Despite this lack of evidence, the belief that the Smithsonian actually found and covered up this cave of wonder remains persistent among conspiracy theorists.

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.

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