Book Review: Christmas: A Candid History, by: Bruce David Forbes

Reading this book was an odd experience for me, kind of like overhearing a conversation where you're familiar with the subject matter, but are coming at it from a drastically different point of view. I started out really disliking the book for reasons I'll get to in a moment, but ended on a more positive note.

Since it's the Christmas season, I'd like to start with the negative, which is easily done since it means starting at the beginning.

The book is billed as a history of the holiday, and indeed it opens with pre-Christian festivals. However, right from the start, Forbes defines Christmas as a Christian holiday which was inspired by pre-existing celebrations. While he's open about the significance of Roman festivals like Saturnalia, he's fairly dismissive of them. The term he uses for pre-Christian celebrations is "party," and he never explores a spiritual side to these events.

The reason, it seems, is that the book is written by a Christian for a Christian audience. To his credit, however, he actually does have something worth saying.

The book moves on through the history of Christmas's beginnings, where Forbes covers the fact the Bible offers little information on Jesus's birth (and certainly never offers a date), that Christmas didn't appear for several hundred years, and that the date was almost certainly due to existing holidays and festivals which also inspired a number of traditions.

My issue here is admittedly one of semantics: is Christmas a Christian holiday inspired by prior festivals, or is Christmas better understood as a new name for a far older holiday? If you were here last year, you know this is a topic I've written about myself, and you also know I'm a firm believer that the latter's the way to go. I don't begrudge Forbes for disagreeing on this point, but I was initially disappointed he didn't acknowledge it at all: he simply stated that Christmas was a Christian holiday and moved on.

With one exception, the book gave no indication there was another way to look at the matter. That exception, by the way, was a quote from a historian, neatly tucked in. So neatly, in fact, I found myself wondering if Forbes may be a little more clever than I'd given him credit for: the book seems to be leading the reader to question whether Christmas is truly a Christian holiday at all, even if Forbes shies away from asking directly.

Most of the book is a historical look at the development of Christmas over time. I didn't find much surprising, but then I was already something of fan of the season's history. Overall, I found the section on Santa Claus better constructed than the rest, though throughout there were some fairly large holes in his account. Most notably, the Middle Ages through the Renaissance are more or less skipped over. And while he wrote briefly about Black Peter, I don't think Krampus was mentioned once. I also question the weight he attributed to various mythological sources as opposed to Christian. He certainly acknowledges that Norse mythology (Odin, in particular) were influential, but I believe he far underestimates just how significant this was to the development of Santa Claus.

The book was best when it got to the point. Forbes is, as I stated before, a Christian writing a book about Christmas for other Christians. However, despite my qualms about his attribution of elements, his overall motivation and message are good. Pointing to the numerous non-Christian influences, he rightly dismisses the "keep Christ in Christmas" movement as misinformed. He then goes on to call for respect for other faiths and atheists during the holiday season, encouraging Christians to consider their perspective. While I wasn't all that impressed by the opening, I found the closing chapter downright heartwarming.

Ultimately, this isn't a bad book if you're looking for a quick overview of the holiday's history, though I'm sure there are better ones out there.

Comments

  1. I went to a lecture by Stephen Nissenbaum with a more even-handed look at the history of Christmas. I haven't read his book, but I'm sure it's one of the "better ones". He talked a lot about the influence of Medieval social inversion holidays, especially the wassailing tradition, where the wealthy were expected to open their homes and serve feasts for the working class. He pointed out that the emergence of Christmas as a religious holiday, at least in the US, coincided almost exactly with the rise of workers' movements in the US, and a series of particularly violent labor riots in New York in the 1820s. He argued that the riots prompted the wealthy to quash the social inversion celebrations by closing their doors and Christmas it a family/religious holiday.

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