Believe it or not, Christmas is this week. Yup, even in a year that felt like it was always winter and that there could not ever be Christmas.
And we need a little Christmas, right this very minute. Candles in the window, Quick to Listen scripts in the spinnet.
This week on the show, we are talking to Tim Larsen, the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Christmas, a 656-page book all about the world’s biggest holiday.
The book is divided into eight sections: history, theology, worshipping communities, the nativity scene, traditions, arts, around the world, and state and society. Of course, we won’t get into all of the 45 articles in here today but we are gonna do some nerding out about this holiday. Merry Christmas everyone!
Larsen is a professor of theology at Wheaton College and was recently awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity in historical theology from the University of Edinburgh. He was the only author to win the Books & Culture book of the year twice. Larsen joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss why Christians used to love Santa, how KFC became a Japanese Christmas tradition, and how the holiday went from a day of rowdiness to one spent with friends and family.
What is Quick to Listen? Read more
Rate Quick to Listen on Apple Podcasts
Follow the podcast on Twitter
Convince your library to buy The Oxford Handbook of Christmas
Music by Sweeps
The transcript is edited by Yvonne Su
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #244
Christmas in the modern imagination is mostly Victorian traditions and imagery. How did that expectation of Christmas come to be?
Timothy Larsen: For the Victorians, medieval Christmas was their imagination. They thought of aristocrats and Lords of the Manor putting on big feasts, which all the poor in the neighborhood were invited to enjoy and they put on plays and music.
The Victorian imagination was just too disconnected with their reality, which is also our reality, which is urban and industrial. The inflection point is they figured out ways to think about and practice Christmas that fit a modern, urban, industrial world.
Dickens himself didn’t invent that version Christmas; what Dickens was genius at was saying, just like the Lords of the Manor had to care about the poor in that parish, the story is about Ebenezer Scrooge being bombarded by Christmas, everywhere.
People didn't know how to translate that medieval ideal to the modern world and make the Christmas spirit flow out to those in need. So there has to be a way for you to do that, even though you're a businessman or an industrialist in a modern, urban setting. You don't think of yourself as a Lord of the Manor and responsible for the poor, but you have to find a way to connect with those people.
Another example of that is Christmas cards were invented in Victorian period. It was a way of saying if Christmas is domestic, if it's about our home, how do we connect with people wider than our home? The solution was we'll send them cards, remind them that we care about and they're part of our lives.
How long has the religious antagonism to Christmas occurred? People had views that no day is particularly holier than the next. So how secular is Christmas, as a midwinter festivity, versus how religious it is?
Timothy Larsen: Christmas shifts more and more towards the domestic and the Victorian, which is still where it's at primarily. Today, the more tight knit the community, the longer the public celebration holds out. Working class people in Britain still wanted to go to public sporting events on Christmas or into the early 20th century.
But eventually they give in as well to the domestic Christmas. This is interesting because the third space, the ecclesial, is the one that particularly bothered people in reform denominations out of the center, such as APIs, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers.
They didn't mind so much the cultural Christmas, the feasting, the decorations and the gifts. They had a problem with the worship service, this being a special day in the calendar of the church. In some ways the people that were most evangelical in certain traditions were more comfortable with the secular Christmas.
What were some of the rituals or traditions in different countries that you found really striking or good food for thought?
Timothy Larsen: In Japan, Christmas is much more like our Valentine's day. It's a big date day. Even more interesting is that the traditional proper meal for Christmas is Kentucky fried chicken. It’s like how Coca-Cola associated itself very strongly with Santa Claus at one point. So KFC successfully marketed itself as the meal for Christmas and the Japanese bought it and it's become a tradition now.
We've exported the American view of Christmas in some ways. How did Christmas become a child-focused day over time?
Timothy Larsen: In the medieval period gift giving was common, but gift giving was done much more among power relations among adults. Then it shifted from the public to the domestic, because the public in the modern urban world is one where people don't know their neighbors as well, and don't know the lower class in their own community, the way an integrated medieval community knew the lower class people in their community. It got very frightening, people knocking on the door while selling .
Rather than giving to the poor and those who are considered beneath you in the social hierarchy, those traditions turn towards giving to children, which are by definition also beneath you and the social hierarchy. Also, it is a story about a baby, so thinking about children is pretty natural, however you look at it.
Where did gift giving come from before it got changed to buying lots of stuff for your kid?
Timothy Larsen: Gift-giving is a universal practice. Anthropologist will tell you it's a part of every single culture, and it's a part of the way that every single culture celebrates. Romans already celebrate that way. Presumably all cultures also have a winter festival of some kind. In Esther 9 at the start of the sacred festival of Kareem, Jesus himself would have celebrated.
Esther 9 instructs how to celebrate with feasting, with joy, with giving gifts to one another. We’re giving presents to the poor, which is how we celebrate Christ. It's a way of celebrating a sacred day that is transferable in lots of ways.
Which Christmas songs die out, and which songs are still played decades or hundreds of years later? Is it harder for secular songs to catch public fascination in the same way? And when they do, do they have any common elements?
Timothy Larsen: There are two chapters on music in the book. One is all of the music to 1900 and the second chapter is all the music since 1900. Around the WWII era, radio stations can quite happily throw in a song from 1943 in December.
One genre is an important subject called Blue Christmas. There are all those songs about being sad, not being home and love being lost. So there are multiple ways to write a good contemporary Christmas song.
What type of vocabulary have you noticed about the type of ways that we talk about this holiday? What are you thoughts about language surrounding Christmas?
Timothy Larsen: I think our emotional vocabulary is allowed to breathe and be more open in this time of year where we're willing to talk about love, joy and peace. Our vocabulary is richer when we talk about wishes that we have for people that are around us, even neighbors, that we don't know very well and people that we haven't seen for many years. Suddenly we're willing to add an emotional layer to our interactions that we don't have permission to do the rest of the year.
There are never-ending areas to study because there's so many meanings behind Christmas. What kind of feeling does the question of the meaning of Christmas elicit for you?
Timothy Larsen: I love the multiple layers and rich meanings of Christmas, but I hate when people treat it like a zero-sum game, that if you care about Jesus, you can't have Santa Claus — these things are played off against each other, which I think is completely wrong-headed. There's also a Christmas police aspect that says this doesn't mean what you think it means, therefore you can no longer enjoy it or no longer do it, which I definitely don't like. But I do love reveling in multiple layers and richness of meaning, which are all there for us to enjoy. They're all true. They're not fighting against each other. They're adding to one another.
What exactly was happening around the time when people started to label this war on Christmas and why does that seem to be a different trajectory versus the American response to soften how we talk about Christmas by reducing it to the holiday season or happy holidays?
Timothy Larsen: The original war on Christmas comes from reformed Protestants. The Puritans in New England would find you, if you were celebrating on December 25th. In Scotland, ministers would go door to door, making sure that nobody was having a good time on December 20th.
They actually declared a fast day at one point. John Calvin is the Grinch who stole Christmas and the original war is happening from Baptists and Presbyterians, which is ironic because they're often the people now who are complaining that somebody else is doing a war.
So that is layered. I think it is fought in a different way in America because of the long and complicated conversation that we've had about separation of church and state. In America, we have to be very vigilant about what has a faith connotation or explicitly Christian content or other faith in the public school system.
That has somehow filtered into what does Starbucks put on their cup? What do department stores put in their windows? What greetings are said in those department stores? What does the president put in their annual holiday card? Or is it a holiday card or not, and all these things.
It turns out even people who are activists love Christmas. We don't have a problem with it. We like it. We want to celebrate it. Easter is much more problematic with the Crucifixion and the focus that, but we're going to give you Christmas as something that's good that we like to celebrate.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more