Christmas: A Biography
This fascinating, if loosely-structured, study of the evolution of Christmas traditions will reward the patient reader. It brings together a wide variety of historical and popular sources in a roughly chronological exploration of the holiday’s origins and changing social significance. For each century from Roman times to the present, Flanders discusses food, gifts, songs, games, political and religious debates—all bits of evidence that Christmas has been a contested zone almost from its earliest celebrations. It’s more useful for readers who want a chatty immersive experience; those looking for specific references to particular traditions won’t find much assistance from the free-associative text. Flanders is best known as a Victorian specialist, which shows in her reliance on other well-known studies for the medieval and Renaissance sections, bringing in primary research (of an impressive depth and breadth) after 1800. She also relies heavily on English literary examples such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet Robert Herrick, and of course, Charles Dickens, limiting her scope mainly to Anglo-American and Germanic traditions. She skips from example to example without too much analysis, wearing her erudition lightly (although the lengthy endnotes and “Further Reading” sections will delight researchers). This enhances her conclusion that it matters less which Christmas rituals we celebrate today, and more that we appreciate the power of ritual to enrich our families and communities.