If most of your knowledge about Christmas comes from decades of watching Christmas movie marathons back when Freeform was actually ABC Family, you probably have a fairly good idea what to expect. Honestly, even the cheesiest Hallmark Channel Christmas movie pretty accurately covers what celebrating Christmas with your partner for the first time will be like if you're in an interfaith relationship.
But if you haven't binged that particular set of movies, I got you covered. For starters, there's a ton of food (think Thanksgiving but not necessarily as turkey-centric). Most children believe that a fat, jolly man shimmies down the chimney to deliver mounds of presents. And, sure, I suppose family drama is kind of the norm since it's usually one of the few times of the year that extended family members get together.
But if The Polar Express has taught us anything, it's that the spirit of Christmas isn't something tangible at all. It can't be bought in a store or found under a tree. Just remember, the spirit of Christmas lies in your heart, the book explains. If you're having a little trouble finding yours, allow me to explain the basics.
Who's really the star here — Jesus Christ or Santa Claus?
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ so, sorry Santa, but it's really not about you. Historically a religious holiday, Christmas is one of the most commemorative feast days of the Christian liturgical year. Many traditional families will include a nativity scene — the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger in Bethlehem, surrounded by his mother the Virgin Mary, his father Joseph, and the three wise men who followed the Christmas Star to bring gifts to the new Messiah — as part of their Christmas decorations. Confused? If you've ever heard the song "We Three Kings" around Christmas time, it's all in there.
Why is it celebrated on Dec. 25 every year?
Although there's no evidence of the actual date of Christ's birth, many accounts of the holiday's origins have suggested that the Romans dubbed Dec. 25 the winter solstice — the shortest and darkest day of the year, after which the sun would come out. Celebrating Christmas on this day reflects the metaphorical understanding that Jesus Christ brought light to the world.
So, who exactly is Santa Claus?
The origins of Santa Claus — known around the world as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas — are even more complicated than the religious aspects of Christmas. The fat guy in the red suit is basically a mashup of historical figures around the world who were once associated with gift-giving. These include a fourth-century Greek Christian bishop (Saint Nicholas, who is also the patron saint of children), a cheerful and generous 16th-century Englishman (Father Christmas), and a legendary Dutch figure named Sinterklaas.
Santa's popularity in the Western world has a lot to do with the fact that Christmas is both a religious and cultural celebration, meaning that not everyone who celebrates is honoring religious beliefs. Santa Claus, and many other contemporary Christmas traditions like kissing under the mistletoe, actually have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Why do people exchange gifts?
Although many of Santa Claus' predecessors were known for gift-giving, the practice of exchanging gifts at Christmas actually has religious roots. It's to remind us of the gifts the three wise men bestowed upon Jesus at the time of his birth. Each gift they brought with them had a different meaning: frankincense, which was a sign of worship; gold, a gift fit for a king; and myrrh, a healing oil used to anoint the suffering, which was meant to foreshadow Jesus' crucifixion.
What's the point of the Christmas tree?
Today's Christmas tree is actually a product of a pagan, German tradition where people livened up their homes during the winter months by bringing in evergreen branches and adorning them with apples and other edible decorations. Beginning in the 19th century, Germans moving to other parts of the world brought this custom along with them, slowly integrating it into Western Christmas tradition. In keeping with the Christian theme of the holiday, many people adorn the top of their trees with an angel or a Christmas Star, meant to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem.
What are some other Christmas traditions?
Christmas is one of the most popular American holidays — nine out of 10 Americans say they celebrate Christmas every year. Although Santa Claus and Christmas trees are pretty standard, every family has their own Christmas traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation or that they brought with them when they migrated to the United States. For example, many Hispanic families celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Similarly, Italian-American families do most of their celebrating on Christmas Eve, with a large meal known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Christmas can be a confusing holiday if you've never celebrated it before, especially because almost everyone who celebrates it upholds their own traditions. As long as you know the basics, you'll be fine and, if all else fails, share a line from your favorite Christmas movie to let everyone know you're trying your best to get onboard.
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