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The Oxford Handbook of Christmas, edited by Timothy Larsen

18 December 2020

Ian Bradley considers a time of merriment and love — or doom

WEIGHING in at 1.4kg and with more than 600 pages, this is not a book for slipping into a stocking, but, rather, for dipping into and savouring over Advent or the 12 days of Christmas. Its 45 chapters cover almost every conceivable aspect of the subject, theological, biblical, historical, cultural, and contemporary, from a global perspective.

Among the most interesting chapters are two by well-known Anglican priests. Paul Bradshaw writes fascinatingly about the dating of Christmas in the Early Church, suggesting that it had more to do with aligning symbolic dates and numbers than with taking over the winter solstice. Martyn Percy makes the striking observation that the distinctive theological emphasis that Anglicanism is best known for is its focus on the incarnation. His assertion is perhaps borne out by the significant impact that Anglicanism has had on the celebration of Christmas, at least in the English-speaking world, not least through the service of nine lessons and carols. It also turns out that Santa Claus was largely a creation of 19th-century North American Episcopalianism.

In another outstanding chapter, Katherine Sonderegger, an Episcopalian priest and systematics professor in Virginia, helpfully proposes the theology of Christina Rossetti’s “Love came down at Christmas”, together with a good dose of Schleiermacher, as a counter to what she calls the “Johannine narrative of atoning sacrifice”. There is detailed biblical exegesis from John Barton, Markus Bockmuehl, and others — the swaddling bands alone receive three dense pages of analysis — and separate chapters are devoted to the Holy Family, Gabriel and the angels, Bethlehem and the Census, and the Magi and the Star. Sentimentality is firmly squashed, as in the reminder that “Biblical angels are neither feminine nor cute; they have a male appearance and are stern.”

Published by OUP in New York and edited brilliantly by the indefatigable Chicago-based church historian, Timothy Larsen, there is a distinct North American slant to this book. A whole chapter is devoted to legal and constitutional wrangles over making Christmas a public holiday in the United States.

Overall, the North American Christmas is brought to life rather better than the British one, which is the subject of a slightly disappointing chapter. Maybe this is simply because of the riches it offers, from the BSC (Bachelor of Santa Claus) degrees awarded by a New York college in the late 1930s, and the Atheist Christmas Album that re-writes the lyrics of traditional carols, to the fundamentalist Baptist pastor in Kansas who has replaced “Joy to the World” with “Doom to the World”, substituted “This Might Be Your Final Christmas” for “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, and changed “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to “Santa Claus will take you to hell”.


The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.


The Oxford Handbook of Christmas
Timothy Larsen, editor
OUP £110
Church Times Bookshop £99

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