Christmas: A biography by Judith Flanders

24 November 2017

Christmas has never been tamed, says Ted Harrison

CHRISTMAS was a hedonistic festival hijacked by the Christians. It is perhaps over-simplifying Judith Flanders’s highly informative and very accessible book to summarise it like that, but it is tempting to do so. Christmas: A biography is certainly not hagiography: it is more of an exposé. Her thorough research undermines almost every familiar and comfortable assumption that we make about the season.

The “fact” that Prince Albert introduced Christmas trees to Britain is debunked, as is the notion of Santa Claus as the selfless bearer of gifts to children. Santa makes his principal living as a salesman. He is the arch advertising endorser — being used at various times to sell such things as tobacco, alcohol, shaving soap, socks, and spoons.

As there is no biblical evidence to fix the date of Christ’s birth, it was left to a fourth-century pope to declare 25 December as Christmas. “From the start, Christmas seemed determined to break away from religion,” Judith Flanders notes, and, before the end of the fourth century, an archbishop was already warning against dancing and “feasting to excess” on the holy day.

As everyone knows, childhood Christmases are enshrined in golden memory. Charles Dickens was the past master when it came to evoking Yuletide nostalgia. Flanders suggests that that is what Christmas is really about: a way of acknowledging the perpetual cycle of death and renewal which is life.

“Christmas allows us an illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past.”

Every family has its own way of celebrating, drawing on a mishmash of inherited rituals and practices. Flanders quotes historical sources that demonstrate the many Christmas customs of past times. Geographically, despite the dominance of American culture, regional customs have survived surprisingly well when it comes to Christmas. Yet, through all the many variations, certain common threads are found.

While it is a time of unfettered commercialism and unapologetic consumption, it is also the one time of year when all people say that they endorse “peace on earth”, and urge everyone to be of “good cheer” and to love their neighbour.

The holy festival recalling the mystery of the incarnation, wrapped up in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, is the Christian focus. The secular Christmas message of present-giving and “good will to all” might be godless, but it parallels certain core elements of Christianity.


Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.


Christmas: A biography
Judith Flanders
Picador £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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