On 4th day of Christmas … I read Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders #BookReview

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

You might ask yourself if Christmas actually needs a biography – aren’t all its many secrets and stories already well known to us?

It turns out, as you dive deep into the highly readable Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders, that they really, really aren’t.

All those stories we know and recount about “Silent Night” being written in a hurry when the church organ in small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg gave up the ghost or Christmas trees arriving in a certain country a certain way or even the fact that Christmas has always been a deeply religious holiday turn out to not be so true after all.

What makes Christmas: A Biography so page-turningly entertaining to read is that Flanders finds a way to gently deconstruct all those Christmas myths we hold so dear while bringing us the truth of the matter which is in many way far more fascinating its fictional counterpart.

In that respect, the book begins very much as it means to go on with Flanders wasting no time in making it clear that the Christmas you will read about it is very much not the one with which you think you are familiar.

The constituent parts are all very much in evidence, as are many of the reasons for the traditions, but the way they manifest and why they are there at all is revelatory as Flanders pulls back the tinsel curtain to showcase a Christmas whose origins defy accepted wisdom with gleeful alacrity.

“But religion, as we will see, is only one element – ultimately, and surprisingly, a small element – in Christmas as we know it. For there is Christmas the way it is celebrated in our own culture; Christmas the way it is celebrated in our own home; and Christmas the way it is celebrated in the mass media, in books and newspapers and magazines, on film and on television. All these Christmases are related to each other, but they are not identical.” (P. i)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Flanders takes apart the idea that Christmas was and has always been a hallowed day of wroship and reverence and that it is only in the crash modern days of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, replete with Coca-Cola-designed Santa in a red suit and rampant consumerism, that it has been grossly and wantonly sullied.

The truth as it turns out is quite a bit different to the popular lamenting by Christians (including the ones with which I grew up) that Christmas was so much back then.

Turns out, not so much.

As Flanders known in the first chapter of the book, “Even from the start Christmas seemed determined to break away from religion: sometime before his death in 389, Gregory of Nazianzus, Archbishop of Constantinople, found it necessary to warn against against the dancing and ‘feasting to excess’ that were occurring on the holy day”.

His concern was echoed by Theodore of Tarsus in the seventh-century who reminded people that eating well at Christmas was to be expected, they shouldn’t over do it.

Flanders notes that if everything was squeaky clean and religious as Christians maintain it most certainly was, then there would have no need for such admonitions.

The fact is that Christmas was arbitrarily placed on 25th December because it was the winter solstice and not because of any Biblical fact or religious truth.

Judith Flanders (image courtesy official Judith Flanders Facebook page)

One of the other things to emerge from Christmas: A Biography is that people assume that their own Christmas traditions are the correct ones and most perfectly embody the spirit of the season and that everyone else is not quite getting it right.

This is nothing new when it comes to weird contrariness of the human condition; we see it in religions, sporting codes and all manner of other activities all the time.

What is interesting is that there is this idea of the universality of Christmas traditions, and that while we celebrate in different ways, that we are at heart celebrating the same holiday in pretty much the same manner.

We have presents, Christmas trees, carols, family events, cards etc etc but as Flanders beautifully and compellingly lays out, not only are there vast difference between countries, peoples and groups but that Christmas itself has gone through many forms down through ages, especially in countries like England or the US, who see their traditions as the real embodiment of Christmas and unchanging down through time.

That’s not even close to being the case, and while we can thank the two countries for many of the attributes of a modern Christmas, any idea that these ideas are unchanging and inviolable is very much far from the truth.

“To our twenty-first-century eyes, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens are not modern; they represent the Good Old Days. But it is Dickens, especially, that Christmas first meets the modern world. Indeed, it is Dickens who showed the world that modernity and Christmas are eminently suited to each other.” (P. 123)

Flanders also touches on the great divide between Christmas reality and the romance of a perfect Christmas.

We like to believe that Christmas is this perfect bubble of peace on earth and goodwill to all men, the most wonderful time of the year when all the slings and arrows of misfortune are cast to one side and we can bathe in a bonhomie that transforms souls and make everything unquestionably merry and bright.

While Flanders doesn’t dismiss this ideal, she does note that Christmas has often been characterised by all manner of raunchy behaviour and licentiousness, and brawling people in the streets and that while a perfect Christmas is an understandable thing to look for, there is no real guarantee we’ll ever get, except in the saccharine wonderfulness of all the Christmas media we consume which is very firmly in the pretty, perfect Christmas camp.

What makes Christmas: A Biography such a fascinating read is the fact that at no time does Flanders tilt her hat of belief in any particular direction; rather she simply lays out a torrent of historical facts in a pleasing and accessible fashion that drives home the point that Christmas is manifestly diverse, both now and throughout history, and that making assumptions about the true nature of the season, for any reason is fraught with all kinds of risk and that perhaps we are best revelling in our own celebrations and being glad that others, however they may mark it, are enjoying the privilege of celebrating this remarkable enduring festival too.

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