Christmas: A Biography

Judith Flanders

Picador £14.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

LET us gather, brothers and sisters, for a reflection on the omnipotent, the omnipresent, the omnishambles of emotional stress, physical fatigue and psychological warfare. Let us lay our offerings, mostly financial, at the gilded feet of the great god Christmas.

And let us take as our text the epistle from the gospel of Judith Flanders that reveals the birth, growth and divine endurance of a day that has become a staple of modern life even as it self-promises eternal life.

Christmas is here to stay. Such is its power that this assertion of faith can be viewed both as a good and a bad thing, depending on the individual.

George Bernard Shaw, for one, had his view. “I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralising subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.”

So that will be an undecided, then. But he is wrong, at least over the power of the shopkeeper and the press. Christmas is bigger than any temporal power.

Its power to grip a culture has not weakened over the years, despite the Shavian shrill. It predates both the shopkeeper as a national force and the press as a general presence. Christmas is so potent it can stop a Great War, if only for a day, sustain capitalism for a period of up to six months of the year, place intolerable stresses on human relationships and be marked by the sort of excesses that lead victims to seek consolation and redemption in self-help groups in dank church halls.

It can excite the child, drain the adult, move the unbeliever and frustrate the religious faithful.

Its all-encompassing reach is such that a charity single, indeed the charity single, would suggest that if famine were not enough for the poor people of Ethiopia their fate was compounded by their communal inability to know that this was Christmas.

It is, then, an awe-inspiring beast and one which is ready to flex its considerable muscle yet again.

It demands inquiry. In an investigation that becomes more engrossing as it proceeds, Flanders covers an expanse of ground with an enviable elegance. This book is written in the sort of prose that resembles in its purity and freshness the snow outside Judy Garland’s bedroom in Meet Me In St Louis. It is a substantial work.

Flanders, of course, debunks the myths and traces the history with the aid of untiring research and formidable dedication. However, she and the book are at their communal best in placing Christmas in its human dimension.

There is much weary chatter today about how Christmas has lost its religious aspect. Flanders makes a persuasive case that it never really had one. The 19th century, for example, is regularly touted as the acme of Christmas religiosity, yet most carols were non-religious and it was not a holiday, far less a holy day.

To digress, it makes my Caledonian heart soar in pride to note that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland basically banned Christmas in 1638 and only reluctantly acceded to its place as a holiday in my lifetime. My very soul further jigs in delight when one recalls that Walt Disney could only find one name when he was looking at the parsimony of Christmas present: Scrooge McDuck.

Yet, like many, I view Christmas as generally a “good thing”. This has something to do with a personal, religious faith but much to do with a realisation that its power can harness the warmly benevolent as well as the crassly commercial.

Flanders is meticulous in examining the less than strong religious roots. The birth of Jesus Christ, for example, is now recreated in nativity scenes across the world, many re-enacted by children. Yet as Flanders observes of the birth: “Historically, as is well known, much of the story as we have it is problematic.” Luke notes that Mary gives birth and her son is placed in manger, but there is no mention of a stable. James says the scene was a cave. History tells us that there was a census in that era but one that took place 10 years after the death of Herod.

All this, of course, testifies to the eternal truth that all religion and most of human belief is based on something more enduring than simple fact, or the lack of it.

One must accept, however reluctantly, that Christmas is increasingly a celebration of the material rather than the spiritual. Santa’s modern physical form was largely shaped by Coca Cola. His day of work has nurtured, sustained and fattened the retail industry. But Flanders is too inquisitive, too ferociously intelligent to recite an indictment to Mammon.

This is a book that explains wassailing, the growth of mistletoe, the origins of the mince pie, the ubiquity of the Christmas tree (no, not all down to Prince Albert) and the emergence of Santa as a captain of industry.

But there is much more to the story. This is a tale where Goethe, Washington Irving and the growth of Tammany Hall all make dramatic entrances in the manner of welcome Christmas guests. They all are called to give evidence in the prosecution of a case that states that the Christmas story is not that of a religious festival corrupted by commerce.

It is much, much more interesting than that.

This is best illustrated by a series of observations by Flanders but the most intriguing are, firstly, her comparison between Santa and Jesus Christ. One is fat, one is thin. One is eternally old whereas on December 25, Jesus Christ is a newborn. One lives in the snow of the Arctic, the other in the sun of the Middle East.

But it is their message that provides the stark contrast. Santa is “the god of hedonistic enjoyment, the exact opposite of a man who preached that it is ‘easier to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’.”

It is not difficult to divine what message is the more palatable in capitalistic society. Similarly, Flanders points out that the messages of two of the most potent artistic motifs of Christmas – Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – are not just about redemption and personal renewal but also of the debilitating, demeaning power of capital.

Bob Cratchit is forced to work on Christmas Day, indeed cannot take an unpaid holiday. George Bailey may find hope and sustenance in the arms of his family and friends but the evil, capitalistic Potter presumably continues to prosper.

This, and much more, is what makes the work of Flanders so engrossing. She gives pause, reminding her readers that most celebrate an idea of Christmas that comes from an imagined past that has no basis in reality, whether one is religious or not.

Yet Christmas prospers because it does not only invade our pockets but touches our hearts, even souls. It can be a time of the most tedious stresses but it can offer much in return. It can, at its best, be a time of renewal of reconnection and an opportunity to grow in tolerance and love.

There may be little time to think in the coming weeks but Christmas might be at its most powerful as a time of reflection. Flanders has added much to this internal, personal debate with a book that honours facts but exults in a realisation that there is another dimension to the phenomenon of Christmas.

It deserves a more honourable fate than that of a stocking filler but it will perform that role with distinction.