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 ...

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Christmas: A Biography
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Christmas: A Biography
Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date
October 24, 2017
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