Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes, University of California Press, 179 pages
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 But those who might think that religion scholars are either withdrawn geeks or modern-day Desert Fathers may be surprised how accessible and entertaining this survey is.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.