*** 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

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

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


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


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.)