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Five little-known Christmas facts

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Christmas is Western culture's most important holiday, and it is surrounded by lore passed down traditionally. Here are five facts about Christmas that are not widely known:

The number of magi is unknown.

The Gospel of Matthew records that magi (a word referring to Zoroastrian priests) gave the child Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). Because three different gifts are mentioned, tradition (small-t tradition, not Apostolic Tradition) is that there were three givers. Matthew, however, does not specify the number of eastern visitors.

The Star of Bethlehem may not have been a bright object.

It is compatible with the Christian faith to believe that a miracle such as the Star of Bethlehem might have a natural explanation, with the "miracle" being in the nature and timing of the phenomenon. Many possible natural explanations for the Star have been proposed, but not all of them describe an astronomical object. One interpretation is that the "star" was actually the retrograde motion of the planet Jupiter, interpreted by the magi as an astrological sign. (Of course, nothing rules out the possibility that the Star was a purely supernatural phenomenon.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas do not even start until Christmas Day.

Our culture today inexplicably tends to stop celebrating holidays the day after that holiday. Thus the radio stations that play Christmas music throughout December return to regular programming on December 26, and most Christmas trees are taken down before the new year. Traditionally, though, the period before Christmas has long been called Advent, with a distinct season starting Christmas Day. The Twelve Days of Christmas last through January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.

Good King Wenceslaus was not a king.

The subject of the Christmas carol is Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia and patron saint of the Czech people. He lived in the 10th century and died a martyr's death when he was assassinated. The page mentioned in the song was named Podevin, and while he may have helped St. Wenceslaus with his charitable endeavors, tradition says he was killed after he avenged the murder of his master by killing the chief assassin.

Poinsettias are not poisonous.

These plants, originally from Mexico, are members of the spurge family Euphorbiaceae, many of whose members are toxic. Poinsettias themselves, however, do not contain any particularly dangerous substances, though it is inadvisable to get the sap in your eyes.

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