In Christmas: A Biography, social historian Judith Flanders questions the widespread assumption that ‘a deeply solemn religious event’ has been ‘sullied’ by our own secular, capitalist society … as Flanders repeatedly shows: Yuletide has almost always been more rowdy and secular than reverent or religious … Christmas: A Biography grows increasingly sociological, just as the holiday itself grows increasingly oriented toward children … Throughout, too, her writing remains brisk and witty.
Flanders has unearthed all sorts of interesting facts, none of them dull, the tower of them a bit overwhelming. She spends a detailed 245 pages showing us that Christmas Future is whatever people will need it to be; Christmas Present is what people need now and usually includes a tree-type thing and Santa-type being. It’s Christmas Past that’s the mother lode … What Flanders shows most clearly is that holiday traditions are constantly being invented to give people what they long for, and that the heart of our most modern tradition is the belief that ‘whatever was happening in the world that was wrong … Christmas would bring it to a halt for a period of peace and companionship.’ Christmas, Flanders tells us (and persuades me), offers a wonderful ‘illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past … while unconsciously omitting the less desirable parts of those times.’
Judith Flanders’ Christmas: A Biography manages to be not only a timely history of the festive season but also an overdue re-evaluation of some of the common assumptions about it … Flanders covers all areas in fine detail, whether the introduction of decorated indoor trees (1605), the ‘commercial innovation’ of red-nosed Rudolph (1939) or the many sections on mouthwatering and stomach-churning food … By the end of her comprehensive and diverting study, we are all the wiser about wassailing, janneying and belsnickling, not to mention hogglers, callithumpians and Lords of Misrule … Flanders knows how to tell its story well, and her reader comes away with a better understanding of, and even deeper appreciation for, this magical time of the year.
Judith Flanders, a marvelous explicator of 19th-century culture high and low, has written a plum-puddingy history of Christmas, an ‘amalgam of traditions drawn primarily from the Anglo-American world and the German-speaking lands’ … Ms. Flanders, too, makes sure we get a sense of what underlay the cheerful romps of Victorian Christmas … She overlooks Hispanic celebrations like Las Posadas (nativity processions coinciding with Aztec solstice festivals), still celebrated from New Mexico and Texas to Michigan and Oregon. Ms. Flanders does discuss non-Christian festivals that have grown in prominence as a response to Christmas, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
It is a persistent fallacy, suggests Judith Flanders, that Christmas has only recently been rendered tawdry by commerce. As she repeatedly demonstrates in this exhaustive history, what a medieval cleric called ‘swilling and riot’ accompanied, and often eclipsed, piety from the very start … She moves briskly over what is traditionally deemed to be the core of Christmas. Religion is a surprisingly small element. She is interested in nativity plays, not for their biblical content but for the way they illustrate her theory that modern Christmas is essentially performative … [Christmas: A Biography] is more of a catalogue of colourful information, as much of a ragbag of cultural references as Christmas itself, and as surprising an assortment of items as any you might find heaped up under a tree.
...fascinating and lively … The book is stuffed with surprising revelations … Flanders relegates the so-called ‘War on Christmas’ to a mere footnote, while happily celebrating the holiday over the centuries and debunking plenty of myths. Eating, drinking and making merry have always been part of Christmas. In a tug of war between the religious and secular, the latter usually wins.
Flanders dispenses with cherished trappings and traditions in this investigation of Christmas, drawing a short line from Christmas’s religious origins to its secular celebration … Although Flanders’s voice sometimes disappears amid the cascade of facts, her well-structured argument lays to rest the idea that the celebration of Christmas is solely religious.