Monday, November 27, 2017

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

An exceptional look at Christmas --- traditions ancient and modern and a surprisingly indepth view of cultural norms across the world. From a bird's eye view of Christmas at large, to a zoom in on the eclectic, dark and downright absurd, Flanders uses her accessible voice to extol the most magical time of year.

"Each of us is a storehouse of Christmases," she writes, "A repository of all the happiness and sometimes sadness of seasons past."

From mummers to wassail to Passion plays to Puritans, Christmas is an all-encompassing, dazzling and addictive look at masks and music, food and patronage, parades and pomp. From Martin Luther to Pepys--- Jefferson to Washington to Dickens to Henry VIII --- Christmas is highlighted at times political, sometimes moral, sometimes amoral and eventually a stick of velcro to which a hodgepodge of religious traditions stuck and stayed. Theological tenets inspired beautiful Christmas carols while 20th Century Commercialism placed Santa on floats and in malls. Food was constant, Massachusetts outlawed the holiday, sometimes it was fashionable, sometimes it was not... Scotland didn't recognize Christmas as a holiday until the 1950s.

"The holiday seduced the population to drunkenness, gluttony, unlawful gaming, wantonness, uncleanness, lasciviousness, cursing, swearing and all to idleness."

There is just so much in this festive tapestry. From American slave traditions to the immigrant colonial influence on the hodgepodge of traditions, Christmas is a pot to which an almost universal recipe has been added. 

And then there is the modernity "Dickens showed the world that modernity and Christmas are eminently suited to each other" Several chapters on the influence on the Victorians on our contemporary practices was a perfect side piece to The Man Who Invented Christmas. Christmas presents were wrapped because coal and suit were the constant bane of Victorian households. "Your packages reflect your personality", thus became an easy way to capitalize on festive ornamentation.

As a Torontonian, I was excited to learn that the first Christmas department store parade ( and the one that inspired Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade) took place at Eatons in the early 20th Century. Likewise, Eatons eventually televised the parade--- inspiring, again, Macy's in the States --- a tradition that is known to this day.

No matter your race, religion or creed. No matter if you prefer real trees to fake .... from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa, Christmas will challenge you to think about how Christmas fits into the fabric of your family. It is also a treatise on nostalgia: noting how when so many spoke of olden days they were merely thinking of times before Christmas was as we know it now.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is engrossing, exceptionally well-researched and a hole in which you will easily fall down, excavating one wonderland after another.... It even takes a gendered approach to the holiday, carefully examining the role of men and women in the Christmas preparations and advertisements. Christmas becomes a time for us to reflect on the "idealized version of ourselves" armed with a Christian infusion borne of a need to dispel the wantonness and debauchery of a roman Pagan festival. Then, it became a balm. "Christmas has assimilated traditions from half a dozen cultures and countries and therefore appears endlessly flexible."

While Flanders shows us that rules and regulations for the holiday have changed immensely over the centuries, she believes, as I do that at the centre and crux is a spirit of the best of humanity. So take your symbols, transpose traditions, transform Christmas from your descendants into a resurrected and refurbished season of its own. "Part of the meaning of Christmas", she writes" is repetition." We are all easy portals for the Christmases that have filled us. And whatever it means to you is valid and wonderful--- but knowing HOW we got here is the buoyant joy of a wonderful book.

With thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.