Christ­mas: A Can­did His­tory by Bruce David Forbes, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 179 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Craig Smith

You might ex­pect a book about Christ­mas with the word “can­did” in the ti­tle to con­cen­trate on the con­sumerism-gone-mad as­pect of the hol­i­day rather than on its tra­di­tion of good-hearted gift-giv­ing. But while Bruce David Forbes ex­plores those is­sues, he be­gins in the right place, with a study of the feast’s sa­cred roots, fol­lowed by ex­pli­ca­tions of how those roots have evolved, and in some cases got­ten twisted, over the cen­turies.

A pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at Morn­ing­side Col­lege in Sioux City, Iowa, Forbes is co-ed­i­tor of an­other UC Press book, Re­li­gion and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture in Amer­ica. But those who might think that re­li­gion schol­ars are ei­ther with­drawn geeks or mod­ern-day Desert Fathers may be sur­prised how ac­ces­si­ble and en­ter­tain­ing this sur­vey is. Forbes writes from a po­si­tion of strong schol­ar­ship, but his easy, wide-rang­ing nar­ra­tive never feels over­stretched or es­o­teric; and his writ­ing and notes make it clear that there’s a lot more candy hid­den in this au­tho­rial Christ­mas stock­ing for those who want to ex­plore fur­ther.

Forbes be­gins by dis­cussing win­ter, that cra­dle of re­newal myths in so many north­ern (hemi­spher­i­cally speak­ing) cul­tures, with em­pha­sis on an­cient Rome’s Saturnalia and the Scan­di­na­vian tra­di­tions of Yule. Of course, once hu­mans re­al­ized that the long­est dark­ness of the cold­est sea­son also marked the grad­ual climb back to­ward light and spring, it be­came manda­tory to cel­e­brate it in some way— to make sure the sun came back, if noth­ing else. In prim­i­tive times there were lot­ter­ies end­ing in hu­man sac­ri­fice, on the “the king must die” or­der; th­ese were later repli­cated in the king-for-a-day as­pect of Saturnalia and even later, in the bean or other prize in a tra­di­tional king cake dur­ing the Ro­man Catholic feast of Epiphany. A lux­u­ri­ous Christ­mas pud­ding full of sil­ver coins is an­other bud on this par­tic­u­lar branch of tra­di­tion.

Spe­cial foods like th­ese, which memo­ri­al­ize Yule as a feast of hope amid scarcity, helped mark an orgy in the pre­cise sense of the word: a time for un­tram­meled en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture af­ter a long pe­riod of re­pres­sion, again in the strict sense of the word. (Burgo Par­tridge’s fas­ci­nat­ing 1958 A His­tory of Or­gies, now out of print though find­able on­line, is a good source for more dis­cus­sion of this con­cept.)

Fol­low­ing this “First ThereWasWin­ter” chap­ter, Forbes moves on to “Christ­mas Comes Late” and a dis­cus­sion of the vi­cious ar­gu­ments an­cient the­olo­gians in­dulged in as to just when and where Je­sus Christ was born and when and how the oc­ca­sion should be cel­e­brated. He points out, as oth­ers have, that the Na­tiv­ity was not only an adap­ta­tion of re­turn-of-spring be­liefs ex­tend­ing through­out many hu­man cul­tures but an ex­am­ple of the early Chris­tian church’s petu­lant de­sire to have its king cake and eat it, too— to cel­e­brate the re­turn of the sun as Son and to cleanse pri­mal fes­ti­vals of their ear­lier, earthy be­hav­iors.

In “Christ­mas Is Like a Snow­ball,” Forbes shows how the sea­son’s fast-grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity bur­geoned— like a rolling snow­ball, tak­ing up any­thing in its path— till it was, so to speak, too big to fail. The com­par­i­son’s ob­vi­ous­ness does not de­tract from Forbes’ per­cep­tive anal­y­sis of it. “From Saint Ni­cholas to Santa Claus” fe­lic­i­tously dis­sects the way Christ­mas be­came pop­u­lar­ized in 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica, in great part by car­toon­ist Thomas Nast and ed­i­tor-writer Cle­ment C. Moore. To­gether, they turned the benev­o­lent fourth­cen­tury Ni­cholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Mi­nor, into a big­bel­lied, swag-bear­ing mon­ster who jaunted along in a sleigh be­hind eight tiny fly­ing rein­deer. No won­der kids scream at Santa Claus; they re­al­ize how uber-weird he is— even more so than clowns.

Forbes also shows how Queen Vic­to­ria and her con­sort, Al­bert, ce­mented Ger­manic Christ­mas tra­di­tions in Eng­land and how those cus­toms crossed the At­lantic to cross-fer­til­ize Amer­i­can prac­tices. And his in­sights into Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Carol are fas­ci­nat­ing. Did you re­al­ize that this beloved Christ­mas clas­sic is re­ally a sec­u­lar-hu­man­is­tic trea­tise? God is only men­tioned in Tiny Tim’s fa­mous ex­hor­ta­tion; there’s only one ref­er­ence to church, be­ing the place where the re­formed Scrooge goes on Christ­mas Day; and the story is full of ghosts, which are given scant shrift in Chris­tian the­ol­ogy.

Forbes’ fi­nal chap­ters are “And Then There­Was Money” and “WrestlingWith Christ­mas.” They show how St. Ni­cholas was fi­nally mor­phed into a toy-sell­ing, Coca Cola-swill­ing, cig­a­rette-hawk­ing and booze-drink­ing com­mer­cial icon, and how Christ­mas’ orig­i­nal mes­sage of peace and hope has be­come a manic source of stress, guilt, and overindul­gence for too many peo­ple. All in all, this is the re­me­dial book you need when Christ­mas gets to be Just Too Much. Not be­cause it’s cyn­i­cal, but be­cause it’s won­der­fully per­cep­tive as well as en­ter­tain­ing.

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