Book review: Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders
Christmas comes but once a year'¦ but it brings with it centuries of religious observance, history, tradition and commercialisation.
Judith Flanders, the acclaimed author of The Victorian House and The Victorian City, digs deep into Christmas past and present to bring us the fascinating story of the festive season, from mummers’ plays and gargantuan feasts to the invention of Sellotape and the origin of crackers.
Indeed, Christmas has become such an overwhelming festival that it has taken on a personality of its own, deserving a biography which, in the slick hands of Flanders, becomes a riveting mixed bag of entertaining revelations, myth-busting facts, colourful social histories and enough footnotes to fill a second volume.
In fact, the religious background centred on the birth of Jesus Christ appears to be only ‘a small element’ in the history of Christmas in this multi-faceted account which uncovers the origins of a whole panoply of festive familiars like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, cards, carols, candles, decorations, food and drink, the custom of exchanging gifts and kissing under the mistletoe.
Christmas, of course, has been all things to all people since it was first recorded as a festival in the fourth century… a religious occasion, a family celebration, a time of eating and drinking. And yet the origins of the customs which characterise the festive season are wreathed in myth.
When did turkeys become the plat du jour, is the commercialisation of Christmas a recent phenomenon, or has the emphasis always been on spending?
Food, drink and nostalgia for Christmases past, claims Flanders, seem to be almost as old as the holiday itself and far more central to the story of Christmas than religious worship. Only thirty years after that first recorded Christmas, the Archbishop of Constantinople was already warning that too many people were spending the day not in worship, but dancing and eating to excess.
By 1616, the playwright Ben Jonson was nostalgically recalling the Christmases of yesteryear, confident that they had been better then. And more than two centuries later, Charles Dickens transformed the concept of Christmas. He became the ‘king of the family hearth… of the new Christmas of children,’ with A Christmas Carol often described as the book that ‘invented’ Christmas.
By the 1860s, old-fashioned Christmases were what everyone was supposed to want with the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, the new and groundbreaking American women’s fashion magazine, featuring tree decorations including ‘globes, fruits, and flowers of coloured glass.’
Fast forward to the 21st century and Christmas is celebrated by many who share none of its traditions and who are not even nominally Christians, says Flanders. It is a holiday that ‘shape-shifts, that transforms itself, to become what we – what our cultures – need it to be at any given time.’
And the nostalgia that has become a part and parcel of Christmas is, claims Flanders, our desire to live in a world of firm foundations – whether that is family, religion or personal and social relationships – even if it is only an illusion. ‘The rituals of Christmas allow us to believe, if only for one day a year, that that world exists.’
Or as Cecil Day Lewis so aptly wrote, ‘there are not Christmases, there is only Christmas – a composite day made up from the haunting impression of many Christmas Days, a work of art painted by memory.’
(Picador, hardback, £14.99)