Explainer’s Christmas Roundup

Your Christmas-related questions, with answers from our archives.

Santa Claus is coming to town

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for some, the most confusing for others. With the holidays fast approaching, the Explainer recaps your seasonal questions from years gone by.

On Dec. 25, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Was the Messiah the first to have that name, or were there a lot of Jesuses running around back then?

Many people shared the name. Christ’s given name, commonly Romanized as Yeshua, was quite common in first-century Galilee. (Jesus comes from the transliteration of Yeshua into Greek and then English.) Archaeologists have unearthed the tombs of 71 Yeshuas from the period of Jesus’ death. The name also appears 30 times in the Old Testament in reference to four separate characters—including a descendent of Aaron who helped to distribute offerings of grain and a man who accompanied former captives of Nebuchadnezzar back to Jerusalem. (Read more on the name Jesus.)

So Mary was supposed to be a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. Is there any possible way that could have happened?

Yes, in theory. However, a number of rare events would have to occur, and the chance of these all happening in close succession is virtually zero. For a human virgin to get pregnant, one of her eggs would have to produce, on its own, the biochemical changes indicative of fertilization and then divide abnormally to compensate for the lack of sperm DNA. That’s the easy part: These two events occur in the eggs or egg precursor cells of one out of every few thousand women. But the egg would also need to be carrying at least two specific genetic deletions to produce a viable offspring. (Read more on real virgin births.)

In Iceland, more than half the population seems willing to believe in the existence of elves. How do the Icelanders know when elves are nearby?

They use psychic powers. The ability to see the huldufólk, or hidden folk, can’t be learned; you’re just born with it. To find elves, seers don’t really need to do anything—they’ll just sense an elfin presence. A Vanity Fair article from 2009 says that elf detection can take six months, but it’s usually a quick process that can last under an hour. And although the magazine claims that a “government expert” had to certify the nonexistence of elves, the Icelandic Embassy insists that these consults are performed by freelancers, not government contractors. (Read more on the secrets of elf-detecting.)

Most shopping malls hire at least one full-time Santa Claus to entertain children throughout the holiday season. Anyone can slip into a red suit and bellow, “Ho-ho-ho!” But how do you become a professional?

Sign up with a Santa distributor. While amateur Santas can apply to smaller shopping centers directly, national staffing services farm out talent to the larger malls. Noerr Programs Corp. serves as the North Pole’s version of central casting: It supplies St. Nicks to 169 major malls across the country. At Noerr, aspiring Santas are carefully interrogated about their willingness to travel, experience with kids, and, if applicable, their own memorable moments playing Santa. One key question: What does Christmas mean to you? Preferred answer: It’s all about the children. Santas can be of any ethnicity—certain malls prefer African-American or bilingual Santas—but they must be male, in keeping with tradition. Having a natural beard is also a prerequisite. (Read more on shopping-mall Santas.)

How did we end up with the tradition of eating turkeys at Christmas and Thanksgiving?

They were fresh, affordable, and big enough to feed a crowd. Americans have long preferred large poultry for celebrations because the birds could be slaughtered without a huge economic sacrifice. Cows were more useful alive than dead, and commercial beef wasn’t widely available until the late 19th century. Chicken was more highly regarded than it is today, but rooster meat was tough, and hens were valuable as long as they laid eggs. There was plenty of ham or brined pork around, but it wasn’t considered fit for special occasions. Eating turkey was also in keeping with British holiday customs that had been imported to the New World. (Read more on holiday turkey.)

Easter moves around on the calendar, but Christmas is always on the same day. What gives?

The date of Easter is determined according to the lunar calendar, while the date of Christmas is fixed on the solar calendar. Before 325 A.D., there was no official celebration of the birth of Christ, and Easter was celebrated by some Christians on Passover (a lunar holiday) and by others the following Sunday. The rationale: Christ’s Last Supper took place on or around Passover, he was crucified on a Friday, and the festival of Easter celebrates his resurrection two days later.

In 325, church officials at the First Council of Nicaea formalized the date of Easter as the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. At the same time, the council inaugurated Christmas by making Dec. 25 the Feast of the Nativity. Because Christmas was not directly related to a lunar holiday, and because it had never been celebrated before—the date of Christ’s birth is not mentioned in the Bible—the council was able to establish an unambiguous date for the celebration. (Read more on the scheduling of Christmas and Easter.)

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