What Is Christmas, and Why Do We Celebrate It?
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What Is Christmas, and Why Do We Celebrate It?
Crowds of people dressed up and going door-to-door while asking for treats and threatening mischief if the homeowners didn’t pony up…. Sounds like Halloween, right? Actually, that was one popular way Christmas was celebrated during the Middle Ages! That’s right, our modern holiday—celebrated with Christmas traditions like gifts and trees and marked by Christmas symbols including stars and canes—is a far cry from how Christmas began.
So, what is Christmas all about, and why is it celebrated in December? Before you start thinking of Christmas decoration ideas and Christmas tree ideas, here’s everything you need to know about America’s most popular holiday.
When is Christmas?
Christmas is always celebrated in America on the 25th of December, but the day of the week rotates. Here are the days of the week Christmas falls on for the next five years:
- Saturday, December 25, 2021
- Sunday, December 25, 2022
- Monday, December 25, 2023
- Wednesday, December 25, 2024
- Thursday, December 25, 2025
Why is Christmas on December 25th?
December 25th is not the birth date of Jesus Christ, the spiritual leader and founder of Christianity whose birth is the reason why many people celebrate Christmas. The Bible doesn’t say when he was born, and the few clues we have—like shepherds guarding their flocks outside—hint that it may have been in the spring.
It wasn’t until three and half centuries after Christ’s birth that the date December 25th was chosen to celebrate his birthday. Pope Julius I picked the date in 350 AD, and it was formalized in 529 AD, when Roman Emperor Justinian declared Christmas to be a civic holiday. (There is some controversy surrounding this timeline, and research into early Christian history is ongoing.)
The date wasn’t a random pick. Many historians believe that both the Pope and the Emperor liked this date because it coincided with the pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice, which dated back for centuries. (The winter solstice occurs December 21 or 22, depending on the year.) Combining Christmas with these ancient celebrations allowed the church to keep the winter holiday tradition while refocusing the party on the “new” religion of Christianity; many of the pagan rituals were ditched in the process.
Choosing a date near the shortest day of the year may have also been symbolic, according to another theory. Each day afterward, the sun would grow progressively brighter, much like how the Christ child developed from infant to immortal.
What does the word Christmas mean?
A big step in rebranding the old holiday was to give it a new, religious name. In fact, the word Christmas comes from Cristes maesse, Old English for “Christ’s Mass,” which references the Catholic tradition of holding a special mass ceremony to celebrate Jesus.
The origin of Christmas: How did Christmas begin?
Today, Christmas is both a religious and cultural holiday, centered around the birth of Jesus and celebrated all over the world. Mid-winter celebrations, usually surrounding the winter solstice, were a staple of many different cultures. After Jesus died, early Christian celebrations focused mainly on his crucifixion and resurrection, so Easter was the original big Christian holiday.
However, about three centuries later, when the Christian church had become much larger and more influential, religious and political leaders wanted a way to make the Christian holidays more popular while still allowing for the traditional celebrations people already enjoyed. Combining Christmas and the winter solstice—even if it meant giving Jesus an arbitrary birth date, as mentioned above—was the solution.
As Christianity spread across the globe, so did the Christian holidays, including Christmas. From there, it became celebrated in a wide variety of ways as different cultures adapted it to their specific needs.
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How did Christmas become the holiday we know and love today?
The early Christmas celebrations combined a mix of pagan and Christian traditions, resulting in activities that might seem more appropriate for Halloween these days: bonfires, trading treats for tricks, and Mardi Gras–like bacchanals in the streets. It became so known for debauchery that the Pilgrims strongly discouraged celebrating it and even outlawed it in some cities when they first came to America.
Christmas wasn’t forgotten, but it didn’t start to regain popularity until the mid-1800s. Two very popular Christmas books at the time—Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.—portrayed Christmas in a warm, family-friendly way. Their recountings were mostly fictitious, but they kindled the imagination of Victorians. On June 26, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas to be a U.S. national holiday.
In the 150 years since then, Americans have created their own unique celebration of Christmas by taking pieces from other cultural traditions and inventing some new ones. Many families have their own personal Christmas traditions, which add another layer of meaning and joy. There is still a religious component and many people attend some type of church service either the night before or the day of, but most Christmas celebrations in America today focus on more secular activities. While 90 percent of Americans say they celebrate Christmas, fewer than half say they celebrate for religious reasons, according to a survey done by the Pew Research Center.
Let’s start with the most well-known, and perhaps most-loved, Christmas tradition: Santa Claus bringing gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus origin: Where did St. Nick come from?
The jolly old elf with the magical sleigh came from the story of a humble monk named St. Nicholas, who was born in Turkey around 280 AD. Monk St. Nicholas acquired his sainthood after giving away all of his wealth to help the poor and the needy. He became known as the patron saint of children and had his own honorary day on December 6th.
Early Dutch immigrants to the United States, however, get credit for the name Santa Claus. They brought with them their cultural tradition of celebrating the saint’s death. They called him “Sint Nikolaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas) and abbreviated it to “Sinter Klaas,” which has since evolved into Santa Claus.
The main characteristics of the Santa story—his jolly personality, gifts, a naughty-or-nice list, reindeer, and chimney shenanigans—were put into place by the 1822 poem written by Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore. Its name is “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” but you likely recognize it by its iconic first line: “‘Twas the night before Christmas…”
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You can thank Coca-Cola for the last component, the grandfatherly style of Santa Claus. Their early-1900s advertising featured a warm, happy elderly man with rosy cheeks, a white beard, and twinkling eyes. It was so popular that it became the default image of Santa, who’s now the central character in many Christmas books and Christmas movies for kids.
Popular Christmas traditions
Of course, Santa isn’t the only popular Christmas tradition. In fact, you might find yourself wondering, What is Christmas without these holiday favorites?
Watching Christmas movies
Movies with Christmas themes are some of the highest-grossing films of all time, and families often love watching them together as part of their holiday celebration. Need ideas? These are the best Christmas movies on Netflix right now.
Singing Christmas carols
© Keystone/Getty Images
“Raising a joyful noise” (in tune or otherwise!) is a favorite Christmas tradition for many people. There’s just something special about singing these Christmas songs, especially when you go caroling with a group of loved ones.
Decorating Christmas trees
The tradition of cutting down an evergreen tree, setting it up indoors, and decorating it for Christmas originated in Germany in the 16th century. Since then, it’s become one of the most well-loved holiday traditions of all time, whether you have a real or fake tree. Try these DIY Christmas ornaments to make it all the more special.
There are many ways to show your love for others during the holiday season, and giving gifts is a popular one. The tradition of gift-giving is said to be a reminder of the gifts that the three wise men brought to the baby Jesus.
Decking your halls (and everything else)
Decorating your home, yard, office, car, or even yourself is a great way to bring a festive, happy touch to the dark days of winter. Many people love making their own Christmas decorations and sporting funny ugly Christmas sweaters to bring the holiday cheer.
Stringing up lights
Twinkly lights are an essential component of decorating for the holidays. Whether they hang like icicles, explode like starbursts, take up a whole city block, or just glow merrily in the dark, they add the perfect touch.
Putting a wreath on your front door
Hanging a round evergreen wreath on your door at Christmastime is said to represent eternal life. It’s also a good way to make your home more festive in a flash.
Creating a festive dinner table
A sumptuous feast is made even more appealing when it’s placed on a beautiful tablecloth or a table laid out with festive decorations.
Eating popular Christmas food
What is Christmas without traditional foods? Each culture and family have their own special menus, but here are some of the most popular treats and traditions:
© picture alliance/Getty Images
Whether you bake them to share with others or for your own enjoyment, nothing says “it’s the holidays” like the smell of freshly baked Christmas cookies.
A spiral-cut glazed ham is a popular centerpiece for Christmas dinner, and we pretty much guarantee that the whole family will love these Christmas ham recipes. Roasted turkey is another popular option.
These minty red-and-white-striped confections are a staple in both decorating and eating. They’re just one of the Christmas candies you can only find around the holidays.
Christmas fun facts
Regale your loved ones with these interesting facts about Christmas around the dinner table when you’re not making them laugh with these Christmas jokes. (Trust us: These conversation starters will come in handy!)
- No one likes dropped needles: Two-thirds of Americans will have a Christmas tree this year, but 82 percent of all Christmas trees on display are fake.
- We’re terrible procrastinators: More than 60 percent of Americans buy their gifts one week or less before Christmas. (Pro tip: These stores are open on Christmas Day.)
- Count ’em up: Your true love gives you 364 gifts total, according to “The 12 Days of Christmas” song—enough for one every day of the year…except Christmas.
- We love our minty treats: Nearly 2 billion candy canes are sold every year in the four weeks before Christmas, and the longest candy cane ever created was 51 feet long.
- Christmas carols know no bounds: “Jingle Bells” was the first song ever played from outer space when it was broadcast during NASA’s Gemini 6A space flight in December 1965.
- Shop in your jammies: More than 60 percent of U.S. shoppers prefer to skip the stores and buy their holiday gifts online.
Next, read up on how to celebrate the holidays, based on your zodiac sign, and find fun ways to bring joy home this holiday season.
- Biblical Archaeology Society: “How December 25 Became Christmas”
- Cambridge University: “The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research”
- Baylor University: “The Birth of Christmas”
- Pew Research Center: “Facts About Christmas in America”
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Some mistakes could ruin your washer/dryer
Treat your appliances well, and they’ll last much longer. Chances are you might not even realize the mistakes you’re making that could shorten the life of your washer/dryer. Keep these things in mind, so your unit runs like new for longer.
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You run the washer/dryer more than you need to
“The life of a laundry machine is completely dependent on how often it’s run,” say the tax experts at H&R Block, who provide that information to help inform commercial taxpayers on depreciation and individual taxpayers on budgetary concerns. Try to stick to eight loads a week or less, which they say will “yield an average of a (low) double-digit life,” regardless of the type of machine (front-loading or top-loading, for example).
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You didn’t have your washer/dryer professionally installed
Proper installation is critical for all laundry machines. For one, they must be installed “level,” according to one Home Depot sales associate who spoke to Reader’s Digest. Depending on the peculiarities of your floor, that can be more or less complicated. As for dryers, proper venting is critical, and proper venting means selecting the appropriate size and material for your venting tube as well as proper placement of the tube to permit optimal air flow. If you installed your own machines, consider having a professional eyeball your work.
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You’re stuffing your machine
Neither washers nor dryers work optimally when overstuffed, and worse, they have to work harder than they should when they’re too full. That increases wear and tear on the machine’s mechanisms such as the washing machine’s central agitator. Plus, if you pack too many clothes into the machine, some detergent residue could be left behind—which will attract more dirt next time you wear the clothes. You’ll also want to take care that these 11 things never end up in your washing machine
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Using too much detergent
Using more detergent than the manufacturer recommends is bad for your washing machine, according to Angie’s List. Using too much soap leads to more suds, which could cause your washer to overflow. Have a high-efficiency washer? They require even less soap to wash clothing properly, so be sure to skimp on the detergent and only use soaps marked safe for HE washers. Here’s one way to tell if you’re actually using too much laundry detergent.
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Washing stuff you shouldn’t be washing
Handwashing certain items is not just for the sake of said item, but also better for your washing machine, too. Hooks and underwires from lingerie can damage your washing machine’s drum, while zippers can scratch the door of your front-loading machine.
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Not cleaning out your washing machine’s dispensers
“When you’re done washing a load of laundry, wipe down the detergent and fabric softener dispensers,” Angie’s List advises. “If you don’t, the build-up could cause a clog.” You should also be washing your washing machine monthly if your owner’s manual recommends it.
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Not cleaning out the lint from your dryer
You should be cleaning the lint out of your lint-catcher every time you run the dryer. Leaving lint in the dryer filter lowers the efficiency of the machine by slowing down the drying process. It can also cause the dryer to overheat and possibly catch fire.
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Not regularly maintaining your dryer vent
Maintaining your dryer vent (the tube that directs moisture and lint out of the dryer drum and out of the house) is crucial to keeping your dryer in good working order. A good rule-of-thumb is to have your dryer vent inspected and cleaned out once per year, according to Ivey Engineering, an engineering consulting company that serves as an expert witness in cases involving dryer fires. Dryer fires are just one of the 15 hidden home dangers you should brush up on avoiding.
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Overusing dryer sheets
“Dryer sheets might make your clothing soft, static-free, and smell fresh, but they have a waxy layer that melts in the dryer,” advises Angie’s List. Using too many can gum up the appliance. But no matter how many dryer sheets you use, you need to be cleaning your lint trap on a regular basis—not just cleaning out the lint but actually removing the lint trap and soaking it in sudsy water every couple of months (or more often if you’re also using fabric softener in the washing machine, which also leaves a residue in the dryer). These are the things smart homeowners do once a week.
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Leaving stuff in your pockets
Gum, tissues, even coins, and paper money can clog your washer drain, and if they don’t fall out of your pockets during the wash cycle, you’ll probably hear and/or see them spinning around the dryer, which isn’t good for your dryer’s inner workings. So empty your pockets before throwing your clothes in the wash for the sake of your laundry machines running smoothly, efficiently, and over many years.
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Not taking clothes out of the washer right away
A big problem with washing machines is mold. Mold can lead to a foul-smelling machine, which is definitely going to shorten its life. To avoid mold, take your clean clothes out right away. Bonus points if you also leave the washer door open to allow the machine to air-dry between loads.
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Drying stuff you shouldn’t be drying
If you’re planning on drying anything besides clothing, bedding, and towels, check the manufacturer’s instructions to see if you’re actually going to be harming your dryer in doing so. For example, some dryers are not meant to dry rubber, so if you’ve washed your bathroom rug (with a rubber back), don’t dry it in the dryer unless the instructions say it’s OK. Here are 14 things that should never end up in your dryer.
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Not reading and following the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions
When Consumer Reports asked laundry machine manufacturers what consumers can do to extend the life of their laundry machines, the same answer kept coming up: follow the manufacturer’s instructions for maintaining the machine. With washing machines, that almost inevitably involves cleaning the wash drum (did you realize you needed to clean your washing machine? Well you do!). Many modern washing machines have self-cleaning cycles.
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Drying the wrong things together
Sorting laundry isn’t just for the sake of keeping your whites white. The Home Depot appliance salesman Reader’s Digest spoke to told us never to dry “towels with t-shirts.” When we asked him to elaborate, he explained that your dryer works best when it’s drying items of similar weight and that mixing items of significantly different weight can throw off the balance of the machine. Read on to find out 16 surprising things you can wash in your washing machine.
The post What Is Christmas, and Why Do We Celebrate It? appeared first on Reader’s Digest.
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