13th December, 2020

Review: Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders (Thomas Dunne Books)

"It's the most wonderful time of the year" - that's what a famous Christmas song tells us. Most people will agree, unless they have tendencies towards Scrooge- or Grinchdom. But what do you really know about this holiday? Yes, baby Jesus is a good start but there is definitely more to Christmas. Thirty years after the first recorded Christmas, one archbishop was already complaining that his flock was spending the day, not in worship, but in dancing and feasting to excess. By 1616, the playwright Ben Jonson was nostalgically remembering the Christmases of the old days, certain that they had been better then.

Flanders' book reads like a story, but it is grounded in extensive research and facts gathered from historical sources, both old and new. There are anecdotes that will make you chuckle and facts that I'm sure you will not have known before. I particularly loved to hear about how winter solstice was moved from what we now call Christmas Day to the 21st (spoiler alert: it happened due to the introduction of leap years). Other sections of the book detail how Christmas has its origin in the Roman Empire, or talk about what the deal with Christmas trees is, and explain how Santa Claus first entered the scene. 

Christmas: A Biography is a treasure trove of information on the evolution of the most popular of Christian holidays. What is the symbolism behind the traditional Christmas greenery (holly, mistletoe,...)? What's the story behind the different kinds of ornaments popular in different cultures? How did Christmas cookies and crackers revolutionise the food industry? How was Christmas celebrated in times of war? How did the media and commercialism influence the holiday? etc. etc. 

This book is a wonderful look into ancient traditions, religious and folkloric origins, and modern cultural change. In some parts I would have wished for it to go even deeper into certain aspects of my favourite holiday. Christmas: A Biography  makes for a great stocking filler and is a perfect book to dip in and out of during the holidays. I highly recommend it and promise you that you will have some of your preconceived notions blown. :)

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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