Explainer's Christmas roundup.

Explainer's Christmas roundup.

Explainer's Christmas roundup.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 22 2008 4:24 PM

Explainer's Christmas Roundup

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

It's the most wonderful time of the year for some, the most confusing for others. With the holidays fast approaching, Explainer recaps your seasonal questions.

Before the kids ask—is it really possible for a virgin to give birth?

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Yes, in theory. However, a number of rare events would have to occur in close succession, and the chances of these all happening naturally are 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. (For more on real virgin births, read this Explainer from 2007.)

I'm getting my shopping list ready for Christmas dinner. How did we end up with the tradition of eating turkey 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. Venison would have been another option, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, though it would have required you to hunt for your Thanksgiving meal. 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. (For more on turkey during the holidays, read this Explainer from 2007.)

I'm considering making a little extra cash over the holidays. How do you become Santa Claus for the festive season?

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Sign up with a Santa distributor. While would-be 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. (For more on shopping-mall Santas, read this Explainer from 2006.)

I never seem to know when Easter will be. How come Christmas is always on the same day?

Because the church said so, in A.D. 325. The date of Easter is determined according to the lunar calendar, while the date of Christmas is fixed on the solar calendar. Before 325, 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. (For more on why Easter is flexible, read this Explainer from 2005.)

I used to be able to watch It's a Wonderful Life almost every day throughout the Christmas season. What happened?

U.S. copyright law determines who may distribute, display, or reproduce a film, book, or drawing. Works not covered by copyrights—including ones with copyrights that have expired and those that never secured this protection—are said to be in the "public domain." These works, like the near-ancient Sherlock Holmes stories and some of Charlie Chaplin's silent films, can be reproduced, broadcast, and sold freely. It's a Wonderful Life entered the public domain by accident when Republic Pictures, the original copyright owner and producer of Wonderful Life, neglected to renew the 1946 copyright in 1974. Stations programmed it heavily during the holidays, paying no royalties to its producers, and more than 100 distributors sold the movie on tape. Republic regained control of the lucrative property in 1993 by flexing a new Supreme Court ruling that determined that the holder of a copyright to a story from which a movie was made had certain property rights over the movie itself. Since Republic still owned the copyrighted story behind It's a Wonderful Life and had also purchased exclusive rights to the movie's copyrighted music, it was able to essentially yank the movie out of the public domain, meaning that it could no longer be shown without the studio's permission. (For more on holiday reruns, read this Explainer from 1999.)