In her latest book, Christmas: A Biography, Judith Flanders traces the history of Christmas and its customs through the ages and around the world. Flanders, a New York Times bestselling author and historian of the Victorian era, has turned her scholarly attention to the world’s most beloved holiday. The result is expansive, bold, and surprising.
Flanders begins her biography of Christmas with the early church observances of Christ’s nativity, where the name and calendar date of the holiday have their beginnings. But she insists that the role of religion is often overemphasized in accounts of the holiday’s origin. Independently of the Christian holiday, midwinter celebrations had long been held in Greek, Roman, British, and Germanic lands. From the start, there was never one Christmas. Instead, Christmas has always meant many things.
The modern observance of Christmas—marked by familial, commercial, nostalgic, sentimental, and religious elements—began to take shape in the late 18th century. Consider the Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker, who kept a diary throughout the second half of the 1700s. Her earliest entries show that she, like her fellow Quakers, did not initially recognize or partake in the holiday. Over the next 20 years, we find spotty references to the activities of neighbors on “Christmass, so call’d.” But by the end of the century, we see her shamelessly celebrating with family dinners and visits from friends. Christmas, so it seems, sort of crept up on her.
Quakers like Elizabeth Drinker typically did not keep Christmas for a number of reasons, one of which was the unruly and lowbrow behavior associated with it. Children routinely “barred out” the schoolmaster from the schoolroom in order to compel him to declare a holiday. Young men in Sweden “shot in” Christmas by sneaking up on the houses of friends and neighbors and firing guns. Norwegians wore horned masks and impersonated the Julebukk in rowdy celebrations, while German immigrants to Pennsylvania went house to house “belsnickling” in furs and animal skins. Seasonal drinking and public carousing prevailed in such practices as “mumming,” “wassailing” or “gooding.” Jamaica saw John Canoe parades of elaborately dressed men dancing and performing while separate processions of women did the same.
And yet, by the late 1700s, as Elizabeth Drinker was writing in her diary, the old practices were already giving way to new traditions, such as decorating the home with holly, ivy, and kissing boughs made of mistletoe. The first decorated indoor Christmas tree appeared as early as 1605 in Strasbourg, France, but the practice only attained widespread popularity in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Indoor trees came with particular perils to the host home since they would be fitted with candles to be lit on Christmas Eve. The effect was both delightful and dangerous. Each candle had to be wired or tied to a branch and then closely monitored as it burned.
Gift-giving was not new to the modern age. The old practice followed the expectations of hierarchal protocol—social superiors gave Christmas boxes and monetary tips to their employees, servants, and various tradespeople. At the other end of the social scales, tenants offered fowl and fresh meat to their landlords. Such hierarchical gifts punctuated differences in social and economic status. But, by the early 19th century, gift-giving began to soften with the new emphasis on home and family. Parents gave to their children presents of books, nuts, wood-carved toys, and ribbons.
Around the same time, newly popularized carols spread from Germany to England, France, and the Americas. The habit of young carousers wassailing from door to door for money or mead gave way to church choirs and neighborhood caroling groups. Lyrics concomitantly shifted from making merry and imbibing deeply to Christ’s birth and wistful domesticity. In Flanders’s words, the new tradition “took what was secular and made it religious; and, most importantly, took what was working class and of the street and made it middle-class and of the hearth and home.”
The Ghost of Commerce
Flanders challenges the notion that the Christmas customs of the past were primarily religious. She does not deny their spiritual significance for the believer, but she does contest the idea “that Christmas was once religious, and only in our debased, commercial age has been reduced to its current shabby, market-driven modern form.” In other words, she disputes the presumption that the holiday was in the beginning primarily or even exclusively observed by devout Christians and that only in the last 200 years has its “real” significance been displaced by the forces of secularism and consumerism.
“If anything,” Flanders insists, “religion was grafted on to consumerism, rather than consumerism grafted on to religion.” Take Christmas cards, for example. An invention of the mid-19th century, the first card printed in the United States illustrated Santa Claus with a family opening gifts. The holiday message read, Pease’s Great Varety [sic] Store in the Temple of Fancy. The card was nothing more than a commercial advertisement. A survey of the more than 100,000 cards in circulation before 1890 reveals that religious images, such as the Nativity scene, appeared on extremely few. The majority featured “holly, mistletoe and Christmas pudding, Father Christmas or Santa, Christmas trees, bells and robins, food and festivity.” Biblical or religious themes on holiday cards were numerically “insignificant.”
Commerce hovers like the ghost of Christmas present over the narrative. The cultural importance of Christmas grew exponentially in the 20th century, largely because of consumerism, not in spite of it. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer offers the perfect illustration. In 1939, as a giveaway to children, the retail store Montgomery Ward printed 2.5 million copies of Robert L. May’s narrative poem about the misfit reindeer. Ten years later, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, added music which Gene Autry sang. The song shot to No. 1 in the charts, selling millions in the process. In the wink of an eye, a likable red-nosed reindeer was added to the pantheon of Christmas characters—on account of a department store’s marketing strategy.
Where do Christmas customs come from? Flanders does not confine her answer to a single factor like consumerism here and religion there. Christmas customs in almost every case span years and continents—not unlike The Nutcracker. Bear with me. The Nutcracker first appeared as an early 19th-century story inspired by the hand-carved nutcracker figurines of Germany. The tale gained popularity when it was adapted and expanded by the Frenchman Alexandre Dumas and scored into a ballet by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Later it was re-choreographed by the American Willam Christensen and performed in San Francisco on December 24, 1944, instantly creating an annual institution. Today, ballet companies across the US and around the world stage The Nutcracker at Christmastime and depend on revenue from tickets and memorabilia to fund their yearly budgets. The origin story of The Nutcracker cannot be reduced to one time or place or person. It waltzes across Germany, France, Russia, and America. According to Flanders, it is but one example of the pattern of Christmas’s own long-strung history.
Christmas: A Biography makes a great stocking stuffer for the person who has dabbled in the subject, has a book or two on the shelf, and wants to go deeper. Flanders does not merely repeat the standard narrative with its tried and true landmarks. She presents intriguing new sources of historical material and insightful reappraisals of common assumptions. Her book reminds us that Christmas is always full of surprises.
Adam C. English is professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina. He is the author of Christmas: Theological Anticipations (Cascade Books) and The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra (Baylor University Press).
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