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.