Thursday, December 22, 2011

Five notable books on Christmas history

Bruce Forbes is professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Iowa, and the author of Christmas: A Candid History, co-editor of Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times, and co-editor of Religion and Popular Culture in America.

One of five notable books on Christmas history he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
The Battle for Christmas
by Stephen Nissenbaum

Let’s carry on telling the story with The Battle for Christmas.

This may be one of the most important books written about Christmas. Nissenbaum shows that, prior to those developments in the 19th century, there was a carnival atmosphere of activities at Christmastime – which is one of the reasons why Puritans objected to Christmas. The party was wild. You had roving mobs, and riots, and some people feared for their safety. That happened in England, and also in New England and in New York.

He then outlines how various leading figures attempted to domesticate Christmas, to emphasise it as a family holiday for children. That pulled the Christmas celebrations indoors. People always talk about Christmas as something special for children and the gathering of families. But it wasn’t always that way. Christmas as celebrated in the Middle Ages was more about gathering in taverns. This family-centred, domestic holiday is really a creation of the 19th century. And Nissenbaum, better than anyone else, describes how that happened.

He also discusses, along the way, the commercialisation of Christmas.

Let’s talk about that. People are always saying how Christmas has become a shopping holiday, and its God is consumerism. What are your thoughts?

The way I see it, because of the developments of the 19th century and since then, we really have two holidays now. You might call one a cultural Christmas and the other a spiritual or Christian Christmas.

I think it is true that business interests helped make Christmas a celebration where the whole culture stops. When Christmas moved from a more isolated to a culture-wide celebration, it’s not because the Church campaigned for that. It’s because business interests learned that holidays don’t have to wreck your business. We’re back to Scrooge again. The idea previously was that Christmas is paying people for work that they don’t do. But you see Christmas in a different light if there is commercial possibility. So business as well as religion – as well as people like Dickens who just love the winter holiday – all come together to make it a culture-wide holiday.

But my question is whether you think this other, commercial life of Christmas harms its religious meaning?

Yes, I think the gift-centredness of the holiday is an interference. I always encourage people to simplify Christmas. My personal perspective is that it is a tragedy that when people are done with the Christmas season, they’re not renewed and refreshed, they’re exhausted. So it would be helpful to reduce the hectic nature of Christmas, and also the mass consumption.

I’m not calling for people to not give presents or boycott gifts, but simply to be more personal and to focus on what they find most meaningful. Sometimes that is Christian centred, sometimes it is family centred. We ought to be intentional about Christmas, rather than simply going on autopilot. I think the typical pattern is that when advent starts, you say to yourself: OK, this is the time of year when I must do this, this and this. I think it’s the time that we should pause, evaluate how we’ve celebrated Christmas in previous years, make some decisions about what was most meaningful and what wasn’t, and not do the things that weren’t so meaningful.

More and more people wish “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”, so as to not offend non-Christians. I think that’s political correctness gone mad, but I don’t like the fuss kicked up about it by the American right either.

I live in the American mid-West, and I don’t see much political correctness happening here. I do hear a lot of stories in certain news outlets, such as Fox News, who claim that there’s a war on Christmas – but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that around me, at least where I am.

And I’m not offended by the general phrases because I have used them too. Sometimes I send out Christmas cards that say “Season’s greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas”, but that’s simply because I’m slow and don’t get my cards out in time. “Season’s greetings” helps me cover myself for the general Christmas and new year period. I don’t see myself as diminishing Christmas by doing that!
Read about the other books Forbes tagged at The Browser.

The Battle for Christmas is on Penne Restad's five best list of books on Christmas traditions.

--Marshal Zeringue