LIKE all ancient festivals, Christmas is a potent mixture of legends old and new with a few more myths thrown into the pot. You probably know more about Christmas traditions than you think. But here are a few facts on the Xmas file that may come as a festive surprise. Did you know that: Christmas cards did not exist until 1843, when civil servant Henry Cole - who had forgotten to send his annual Christmas letters - asked painter John Callcott Horsley to devise 1,000 'automatic' messages. Mr Horsley came up with a card depicting a festive scene. In Britain alone, 1.6 billion cards are sent every year, compared to 4.5 million in 1878. A traditional Christmas dinner includes turkey, brussels sprouts and stuffing followed by plum pudding and brandy butter. But a recent survey found that most children aged six to nine would prefer chips, hamburgers, jelly and ice cream. The same survey found that most children do believe in Father Christmas, even if their house does not have a chimney for him to climb down. Mistletoe is seen as a bit of fun these days but, long ago, Druids considered mistletoe to be a sacred plant. Later, Victorians would take one berry off a wreath per kiss and those left without a kiss when there were no more berries were said to never marry. Reindeer are the only deer species in which both the male and female have horns - the males tend to lose theirs in rutting fights. According to Dr David Hughes of Sheffield University - who has studied the star charts in an attempt to pinpoint the star which led the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem - Christ was born on Tuesday, September 15, 7 BC. The date December 25 was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice and the Roman feast of Saturnalia. Why did the Three Wise Men choose gifts of frankincense and myrrh? Perhaps because they are disinfectants, used at the time of Christ's birth for treating wounds. Mary may have needed such medical aids. The attire of Father Christmas - the red clothes trimmed with white fur - stem from portraits of Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop in Asia Minor who became Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas has been the patron saint of sailors, businessmen, pawnbrokers, traders and Manhattan island. But he is best known in his guise as the patron saint of children. Pumpkin pie - now an American dish associated with Halloween - was once a Christmas specialty. In Anglo-Saxon times, Christmas marked the beginning of the year and a law set by King Alfred decreed that no work should be done over the 12 days of Christmas. This is said to explain the reason why Alfred lost the Battle of Chippenham to the Danes. Much later, in 1627, two English ships were taken by the Dutch after their officers went ashore to celebrate Christmas. The word 'Christmas' was first used in 1043 by the scribes responsible for the Anglo-Saxon Chronical. Up to then, the festival had been called Mid-Winter, Midwinter-Mass or Nativity. Monarchs once celebrated Christmas in style. In 1213, the English court ordered 2,000 hens, 15,000 herrings, 10,000 salt eels and 200 pigs for the festive feast. Turkey was introduced as Christmas fare in 1527 but other birds - the swan, peacock, goose crane, heron, snipe, plover, bittern and woodcock - have all been popular. No particular attention was paid to children on December 25 in medieval times, their special days were on the eve of the feast of St Nicholas (December 6) or on December 28, the day of the Holy Innocents or Childermass. In medieval times, Christmas presents (usually money) were originally known as 'New Year gifts' but there were no Christmas trees or stockings for the children. Elizabeth I was the first English monarch to enjoy more personal gifts. It was once believed that for each leaf of a Christmas decoration left in the house after the 12-day season, the householder would see a goblin in the coming year. Charles I received over 70 pairs of gloves as Christmas presents in 1627. The Twelfth Night cake would contain a pea and a bean. When the cake was cut, he who received the bean became king for the night; the pea bestowed the title of queen. After Charles I was beheaded, Christmas was banned in Scotland in 1583 by the austere Presbyterians. The Puritan-dominated English Parliament followed suit in 1644 but most citizens celebrated the day despite the new law. In 1647, there was rioting before parliament and people came to an uneasy truce. During the next few years, there were various arrests and house/church raids. Christmas returned when Charles II took back the throne. In the 16th century, two English aristocrats organised a Norfolk-to-London race between a flock of turkeys and one of geese. The peer who supported the geese won his wager for, unlike the faster-moving turkeys, they did not stop at night and ate as they walked. Boxing Day, December 26, was first legally recognised as a bank holiday in 1871 and, by the end of the century, was celebrated as a general paid holiday. The Christmas tree originated in Germany as a representation of the 'tree of life' and was first mentioned in 1521. Decorations were written about in 1605 and lights appeared in the 17th century. The Christmas tree first appeared in England in the 19th century and became fashionable after Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, adopted it as a custom for their family. Christmas carol singing had almost died out when the custom was revived by the Rev H. R. Bramley and organist John Stainer, on publication of their Christmas Carols Old and New in 1871. In medieval times, Father Christmas was variously represented as an old man with a hump, a hunchback with hat and spectacles and an elderly gentleman mounted on a wooden horse. Hanging Christmas stockings to be filled by Santa Claus became popular in America, England, Germany, France and Holland in the late 1870s. Crackers were invented by an English pastry cook called Tom Smith during the reign of Queen Victoria. One of the largest crackers made was for actor Harry Payne to use in a pantomime. The seven-foot cracker was stuffed with hundreds of little crackers for the audience and also concealed a change of clothes for the cast.