Q: What is the origin of the Christmas nativity scene? -- J.B., Port Huron, Mich.

A: According to tradition, St. Francis of Assisi visited the small town of Greccio, Italy, to celebrate Christmas in 1223. Realizing the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for midnight Mass, he located a niche in the rocks near the town square and set up the altar. To make the celebration of Mass more memorable, he borrowed some farm animals, set up a manger and added statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Several sources say the nativity scene was popular before this date, but this makes a much nicer story.

Q: Are the names "Nutcracker" and "Nutcracker Suite" interchangeable? -- I.B., Trenton, N.J.

A:Although commonly interchanged, they are not. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky first performed his "Nutcracker Suite" in March 1892, and it consists of eight of the orchestra pieces from the ballet. In December of that year, the ballet "Nutcracker" debuted in St. Petersburg.

Q: When was the first Christmas stamp introduced? -- C.F., Hurricane, Utah

A:On Dec. 7, 1898, Canada issued what is considered to be the first Christmas stamp in the world. The 2-cent stamp had a Mercator map, with the words "XMAS 1898." Some collectors insist this is not a true Christmas stamp, because it does not feature a Christmas theme. Other countries were slower in issuing holiday stamps -- the next was Austria in 1937.


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The United States did not issue a Christmas stamp until 1962, a 4-cent stamp with a wreath and candles.

Q:Which popular Christmas song was actually written for Thanksgiving? -- K.Y., Roseburg, Ore.

A: It's "Jingle Bells." James Pierpont wrote the song in 1850 in Medford, Mass. It was published in 1857, while he was an organist at his brother's church. When the sheet music was first published, it was sold under its original name, "One Horse Open Sleigh." Two years later, it was reissued but with a new title, "Jingle Bells."

Q: Is "hot cockles" a holiday beverage? How is it made? -- F.D., Pensacola, Fla.

A:"Hot cockles" was a popular game played from medieval times to the Victorian era. The rules are simple: One person is blindfolded and kneels with his head on the lap of someone sitting on a chair. The blindfolded person places his hands in the small of his back, palm upwards, and calls out, "hot cockles hot." The other players take turns hitting the palm of the hand. The blindfolded player must guess the person who struck. Believe it or not, this really was a popular game.

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