*** DEBUG END ***

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

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

24 May 2022
Disability and Church: Intersectionality
A joint webinar from HeartEdge and Church Times.

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

More events

Job of the Week


Priest in Charge (Rector Designate)

London and Home Counties

Our suburban parish on the border between the London Borough of Croydon and the lovely Surrey countryside and with a spacious modern Rectory, is seeking a Priest-in-Charge (Rector Designate) to lead our church as we seek to fulfil our mission to proclaim Jesus, change lives and serve our community.   We are looking for a leader who, with energy and dynamism, who will develop the vision for the church to enable the children and families work to be a priority in order to grow the church both in numbers and spiritual maturity. In addition, the new person will care and tend for the existing ageing congregation many of whom have ¬faithfully served the church for many years.   The person we are looking for should have: strong communication skills, the ability to engage and encourage people across the age ranges and to convey the church’s mission, vision and priorities; a commitment to preach the Word of God in thoughtful and stimulating ways; an energy and dynamism probably more extrovert than introvert; a pastoral heart, showing empathy and good listening skills, the ability, willingness and experience to help us to develop and enjoy a variety of worship styles, including a wider range of musical worship and a deeper corporate prayer life -whilst recognising and valuing our heritage;   For further information and to apply, please click the 'apply for this job' button below.   For an informal conversation with the Archdeacon of Croydon, please contact the Archdeacon’s PA Kathleen.bailey@southwark.anglican.org to arrange a time for a phone conversation.   Closing Date: Sunday 12 June 2022 Parish Visit for shortlisted candidates: Monday 11 July 2022 Interviews: Monday 11 July 2022   Please note we have a policy in Southwark Diocese that to be appointed to an incumbent status post, a priest must have served a title in an Anglican church in the British Isles.   This post is subject to DBS enhanced disclosure

Organists and Layworkers

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)