Why Is Popcorn the Default Movie Theater Snack?

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istock

It’s hard to imagine attending the latest blockbuster without a jumbo bucket of excessively buttery, salty popped corn. (Or, at least, getting a whiff of it.)

Popcorn was hugely popular at fairs and carnivals in the mid-1800s. Street vendors were able to easily make and sell the delicious, aromatic snack food by the bag when the first steam-powered popcorn maker was created in 1885. However, movie theaters wanted to stay far, far away from the pungent, crunchy grub.

They strove to associate themselves more with the latter half of their name: the theater. A real theater would refuse to be associated with food that would be noisily chomped on and messily strewn about by consumers during showings. Before talkies, literacy was a necessity for film-goers, and movie theaters strove to target a well-educated crowd.

In 1927, with the dawn of talkies, movies were no longer just geared toward a "sophisticated" and literate audience. Going to the movies was an activity anyone could enjoy. This coincided with the Great Depression, and Americans wanted cheap entertainment that would help them to get lost in a new reality. Movies fit the bill.

Although early theaters weren’t equipped to handle popcorn machines, independent vendors were quick to jump at the opportunity of selling directly to consumers. Corn kernels were cheap, so popcorn was inexpensive (ranging from five to ten cents a bag) and patrons who were not well-off could enjoy a bag of the goodness. Vendors began selling popcorn to people outside of the theater, allowing for a double profit of simple passersby and film-goers alike. The snack was everywhere. Soon, vendors could, for a small fee, sell popcorn in the lobby directly to people entering the theater.

Movie theater owners began to cut out the street vendors and sell popcorn themselves. Theaters that refused to change with the times and have their own popcorn makers suffered, as the cheap snack became in-demand. (One theater owner even lowered the price of his movie tickets in order to encourage people to come for the food.) For theater owners, the way to stay alive during the Depression was to give the people what they wanted.

During World War II, the sales of popcorn in the United States really took off. Sugar was sent overseas for the military, so there were not as many resources for the creation of candies and soda. Meanwhile, there was no salt or kernel shortage. The food's popularity continued to grow, and the rest is movie history.

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Each December, Christians throw a collective birthday bash to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’s arrival on Earth. But without a birth certificate—or any other official record of his actual birthdate—in existence, December 25 seems like an arbitrary day for all our Christmas traditions. So how did early observers choose it?

When Was Jesus Really Born?

Since the Bible doesn’t name a month or even a season for Jesus’s birth, historians have relied on other context clues to estimate when it occurred. Shepherds tend sheep in the Nativity story, which people often cite as evidence that Jesus was more likely born during the spring. Others argue that Israel’s mild winter temperatures allow sheep to graze even in December. According to Slate, it’s also possible that sheep set aside for religious sacrifices may have been given free rein, frigid night or not.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Sebastiano Conca, 1720.J. Paul Getty Museum // Public Domain

One clue pointing specifically to December 25 comes from the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who approached old age without having given birth to any children. One day, her husband, a priest named Zacharias, was burning incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him with good news: Elizabeth would bear a son. Early Christians guessed that Zacharias was probably in the temple for Yom Kippur, which they believed always took place on September 24 (it actually shifts year to year based on the Jewish lunisolar calendar). Nine months after September 24 is June 24, so they chose that as the birthdate—and feast day—of Elizabeth and Zacharias’s son, John the Baptist. When Gabriel later visited Mary to let her know that she’d bear a son, too, he mentioned that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. That means Jesus would’ve been conceived in late March, and born in late December—the night of December 24, to be exact, or the early hours of December 25.

Another theory suggests that Christians arrived at December 25 based on an ancient Jewish idea that prophets die on their birthday. During the 3rd century CE, theologists like Tertullian and Hippolytus dated Jesus’s crucifixion to March 25, since it happened around Passover. But to Sextus Julius Africanus, it was less about when Jesus was born and more about when he first came to Earth; in other words, he believed Jesus’s death and conception coincided on March 25, and thus his birth occurred on December 25 [PDF].

The Early History of Christmas

Even if Zacharias was in the temple on September 24, Gabriel did visit Mary exactly six months later, and Jesus was born right on his due date, it’s still possible that we celebrate Christmas on December 25 for a different reason altogether.

While 3rd-century Christians were busy worshiping the Son of God, some of their pagan counterparts were busy worshiping the Sun God. In the 270s, Roman emperor Aurelian popularized the cult of Sol Invictus, or “The Unconquered Sun,” whose feast day was celebrated on December 25. According to John Carroll University history professor Joseph F. Kelly, other Romans revered a Persian god, Mithra, whose feast day also may have fallen on December 25. There was also Saturnalia, an annual Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 23. In short, many ancient Romans were well-accustomed to celebrating something in late December by the time Christianity entered the mainstream.

A painting of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine Callet, 1783.Themadchopper, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That happened during Constantine’s rule over Rome in the early 4th century. In 313, Constantine and his fellow ruler Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which basically legalized Christianity and condemned the ongoing persecution of anyone who practiced it. Constantine was a devout Christian himself, and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the religion throughout the empire. The first known record of December 25 as Jesus’s official birthday is from 336, the year before Constantine died. Because it’s mentioned in a volume containing other important religious dates, some have assumed that a celebration probably occurred on that day, and 336 is often cited as the first known “Christmas.”

Whether Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know that the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn't come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, Christian bishops were holding Christmas Mass all over Rome, and pagan festivals soon fell out of fashion. The fact that Christmas essentially replaced those earlier December traditions could be a coincidence, but some believe it was by design: Since Romans were already primed for parties on December 25, the Church could’ve been trying to co-opt a built-in subscriber base.

In summary, the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate—so feel free to play Christmas music whenever you want.

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