Work Title: Christmas: A Candid History
Work Author(s): Bruce David Forbes
University of California Press
12 b/w photographs, 186 pages, Softcover $19.95
Reviewer: Beth Hemke Shapiro
The word Christmas conjures up all sorts of associations: the holiness of the birth of Jesus, the beauty of the lights and evergreen decorations, and the frantic shopping for last-minute presents, to name just a few. In his six-chapter overview, Bruce David Forbes touches on various aspects of the holiday's history, both secular and religious, resulting in an accessible and informative read.
Forbes is a professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College and the co-editor of Religion and Popular Culture in America.
In the book's opening chapters, he describes how mid-winter celebrations took place all over Europe long before the existence of Christianity; in fact, early Christians initially did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The ancient Roman festival Saturnalia, for example, arose as an agricultural holiday, where work ceased, slaves and noble-born had temporary equality, greenery and candle decorations abounded, and people exchanged small trinkets. Similarly, in northern Europe, Vikings celebrated Jul after slaughtering cattle, with feasting and beer drinking, stories, and bonfires. Only due to the observance of Epiphany---how Jesus was shown to be the son of God---did western European Christians in the fourth century begin to celebrate Christ's birth. With Constantine's acceptance of Christianity, the recognition of Jesus' birth at Christmastime merged with the familiar winter celebrations as a way for the religion to spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Forbes uses the image of a growing snowball to illustrate how the Christmas holiday adopted components of European winter festivals while Christianity was expanding from the Mediterranean region into central and northern Europe. Many legends, for example, describe the origin of the Christmas tree. The Benedictine monk Boniface instructed Germans that the triangular shape of a fir tree represented the Trinity. Germans also traditionally constructed a Lichstock, a small wooden pyramid hung with figures and treats.
At least as many theories focus on how the legendary Turkish bishop Saint Nicholas evolved into the modern American gift-giving Santa Claus. In various tales Saint Nicholas gave three bags of gold, raised three boys from the dead, and walked on water. So popular was...