Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes

I haven’t updated since the beginning of October! 😦 I had all these plans to finish up my challenges and read a bunch of spooky scary seasonal Halloween reads and then school ramped up and didn’t back off and now it’s over. I was able to do some reading, though, and I already had a small backlog before I had to take a break, so I’ve got about 15 books to write reviews for and at this point I’m wondering if it’s ever gonna happen. Maybe I can do a round-up with paragraph-length reviews.



Title: Christmas: A Candid History
Author: Bruce David Forbes
Genre: Nonfiction / history

Rating: 3.5 / 5


This was a short (150ish pages) book about the history of Christmas, from its Pagan roots to various Christian celebrations and non-celebrations to its secular and cultural importance. It’s published by the UC Press, and was written by an academic, but it is aimed at a more mainstream audience.

It’s divided up into chapters that are roughly chronological–for instance, “First There Was Winter,” the first chapter, is about midwinter festivals that predate Christmas but were held during roughly the same time with similar traditions, like Saturnalia, Yule, and Kalends. Later chapters deal with the earliest Christian celebrations of Christmas and what the Bible has to say on the subject, Saint Nicholas’s transition to Santa Claus, the popularization of Christmas in the United States, and the corporate/consumer impact on the holiday.

One of the author’s central arguments is that “Christmas Is Like a Snowball,” the name of one of the chapters. He says that Christmas was never a pure holiday, and when people say things like “put Christ back in Christmas,” they fail to realize that there was very little Christ in Christmas to begin with, and many Christian sects have celebrated it as a very minor holiday or completely repudiated it to the point of passing laws against observing it. Humans need a midwinter celebration, and as Christianity grew in popularity and geography, a Christian midwinter festival started rolling up (as if in a snowball) other traditions of competing cultures, like Yule logs and mistletoe. It was especially interesting to learn that Christmas as a family holiday is fairly recent–the author credited Queen Victoria with making it a family-centered holiday; previously it had been mostly for adults what with all the carousing and such. I think my favorite little fact is that one reason wreaths and evergreen boughs were hung on doors in far northern regions because it was thought that the needles would scare away malevolent spirits (the other main reason was that they’re still green in winter when everything else has died, providing a symbol of life even at a time when everything is dead). I was also especially pleased to learn about Lichstock, which was a German tradition of a pyramid/triangle shaped open wooden frame with shelves on it that would be decorated with evergreen boughs, nativity scenes, fruit, candy, stars, candles, and small gifts. It sounds like a combination between a tree and an advent calendar and I guess they’re really not around anymore and/or quite obscure, because I couldn’t find any pictures of them online. But I am determined to have one for next year 🙂 Also, the author is a Christian and I really liked his suggestions for Christians who feel Christmas is overshadowed by presents and consumerism and that there is not enough spirituality involved: let Christmas and the run up to it be the thing it is now, enjoy it for what it is, and don’t try to wrest it away from the indulgence and gifting because obviously a lot of people are into that; instead, start observing the 12 days of Christmas (the time between Christmas and Epiphany, on January 6th) as a time of spiritual reflection and recommitment. I am not particularly Christian but I kind of love that idea.

There were some moments when I wish he would have given more information on the subject, but overall I think it provided a great short history, and he does provide ideas for further reading. It was factual and even drew on some primary sources, but without being too academic or dry. I’m really glad I read this book, as it has deepened my appreciation for Christmas and other winter holidays and the season they belong to.


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