Religion » Christian

The best books on Christmas

recommended by Bruce Forbes

Interview by Alec Ash

Did you know that Santa Claus was a 4th century bishop in what is now Turkey? That Puritans tried to outlaw Christmas? Or Tiny Tim was originally Little Fred? Religious scholar Bruce Forbes sheds light on Christmas’s pagan past and consumerist present.

Buy all books

Bruce Forbes

Bruce David Forbes is Professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College. He has coedited, with Jeffrey Mahan, Religion and Popular Culture in America and coedited, with Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. His book, Christmas: A Candid Historywas published in 2007 by the University of California Press.

Save for later

What exactly is Christmas? It’s not Jesus’s birthday, is it?

There are several surprises that people encounter when they start to learn about Christmas. One is that Jesus probably wasn’t born on the 25th, because we don’t know when his birthday was. Secondly, it’s a surprise for many people that the early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. It took 300 years or so before there was an annual Christian celebration.

And Christmas originated as a pagan festival long before that, right?

When one studies the history one sees that there were, especially in Europe, many mid-winter festivals that existed prior to Jesus even walking the earth. Then Christians decided to start a birthday celebration, and intentionally set it in the middle of pre-existing mid-winter festivals. So right from the very beginning, the Christmas tradition has always been a mixture of a winter party and a Christian celebration. The struggle of how we balance those two is nothing new.

Let’s delve deeper into the pagan origins of Christmas with the first of your book selections, 4000 Years of Christmas. How so, 4,000 years?

Some people look at this book and don’t do the calculation in the title – obviously, if Jesus was born approximately 2,000 years ago it means there’s a great pre-history to Christmas.

This is a tiny little book – barely 100 pages long, with small pages and big print – written by an episcopal priest with a background in anthropology. It was originally published in 1912, and I’m not sure that there’s been anything better published since. In a very brief way, he gives an indication of the pre-Christian roots of winter festivals, especially in central and northern Europe – with all kinds of traditions that Christianity then borrowed or morphed for its own purposes.

“Christians started a party and put it right in the middle of pre-existing winter festivals. Every time they moved to a new culture, they encountered some kind of winter festival that then became wrapped up in Christmas.”

What I think about the festival is this: Winter is hard for human beings to survive. It’s cold and it’s dark. Even today – with the benefit of electric lights and thermostats – we still have trouble in winter. Imagine what it was like for people in Europe in the Middle Ages to survive. So it’s very understandable that all kinds of culture would develop a mid-winter party to distract them. It would likely be when the days stop getting shorter and start getting longer – in other words late December. And you could guess what it would involve. It would feature lights, like candles and burning logs. It would feature evergreens, because they look alive when everything else seems to have died. You would have people gathering together and feasting.

All those things are for many of us our favourite parts of Christmas. Christians came along later, started a party, and put it right in the middle of these pre-existing winter festivals. Every time they moved to a new culture, they encountered some kind of winter festival that probably then became wrapped up in Christmas.

So where did this date the 25th come from?

We have no document that tells us clearly why they placed it on the 25th. What we do know is that when it was started, sometime in the 4th century, the Roman empire already had three winter parties. One was the Saturnalia, which was a late harvest festival. The second was a new year’s celebration lasting five days. And in between there was the birthday of Mithras, god of the “unconquerable sun”, which was on December 25th.

Maybe Christians chose the middle date because the symbolism worked – you have worship of a sun god, and Jesus is talked of as the light of the world pushing back the darkness. Another way to think of it is taking the birthday of the sun god, and turn it into the birthday of God the Son. Or it might simply be that Christians were trying to hijack the popularity of the mid-winter parties, or trying to tame them because they were too wild.

Presumably this story is continued in your second pick, The Origins of Christmas.

This is another brief book accessible to general audiences, written by a Catholic religious studies professor in the US. He talks about what the limited Biblical evidence is for Christmas, and where we got some of the other traditions. Much of our Christmas story isn’t really in the Bible – in order to develop a big birthday celebration we’ve added all kinds of traditions. This book looks at the origins of St Nicholas, the Magi, and so on.

What does he say about St Nicholas?

He talks about how St Nicholas is really a legendary figure. It’s difficult to tell what is historical and what is legend, but the legends are I think marvellous. He was a bishop in the 4th century in what’s now Turkey, and gained a reputation for generosity, and for caring for young children and travellers. As a saint he almost became the equivalent of a guardian angel. He became very popular, and his saint’s day, December 6th, at least was in the month leading up to Christmas. So over time he became associated with Christmas celebrations. Then, when the legend got to the States, and especially to New York, St Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus.

Tell me more about how that happened.

Well, New York was founded as New Amsterdam, with Dutch beginnings. And the Dutch kept alive the tradition of St Nicholas where many other countries, influenced by Protestantism, had de-emphasised him. So St Nicholas hopped the waters with the Dutch to New York. Then, in a very complicated story in which you would have to trace five or six steps because of one person or another’s influence, he morphs and becomes de-frocked.

In Washington Irving’s writings, he is a Dutchman who rides a wagon pulled through the air by horses on St Nicholas’s day. Then later on, with the famous [1823] poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas”, he moves to Christmas day and gets reindeer.

In that poem, as you point out in your own book, St Nicholas is an elf.

Yes, which is a complete surprise for most people. If you buy a picture book of that poem, the illustrations are usually of the full-size, jolly, red and white Santa Claus. But if you read the words of the poem, he’s an elf – not just in the phrase “the jolly old elf”, but it talks about “a miniature sleigh”, “tiny reindeer” and his “little round belly”. He’s an elf. So he still has to morph more, through the art of [19th century American cartoonist] Thomas Nast and then the advertisements of Coca Cola, until he becomes our modern image of Santa Claus.

Next up is Dickens’s classic yuletide fable, A Christmas Carol.

There’s an interesting backstory here. The great importance that Christmas has now was not always so. With the Puritan revolution of the 17th century, the Puritans tried to outlaw Christmas. They were only partly successful but in England, in the century and a half following that period of revolution, Christmas was de-emphasised to a surprising extent. It was only in the 1840s that Christmas came roaring back, partly because of the influence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – who came from a German background where they didn’t have Puritans to mess with their holiday – but the other great influence is Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

It’s a wonderful story, and it’s also interesting historically. We need to understand that when we read A Christmas Carol we do not read a description of how Christmas was in Dickens’s time. In writing this story Dickens is as much an advocate as a descriptor. He wants to bring back old traditions. He wants more businesses to close on Christmas. He is helping to restart and recreate Christmas.

So at the time, Scrooge was not the exception but the rule?

Exactly. Yet the way he is portrayed pushes the development of the holiday in the direction that Dickens wishes.

Why should we read the annotated edition?

The Annotated Christmas Carol is a remarkable volume. The editor, Michael Patrick Hearn, has written a huge introduction – almost 60 pages – where he provides some wonderful historical background. Then the annotations are substantial. In many cases, they’re as long as the text.

They explain older phrases in English, and are about all kinds of other thing. I was just looking at one this morning about Tiny Tim. Apparently, in the original manuscript he was called Little Fred. There’s much speculation about why the name changed, and how Dickens featured, in many of his writings, poor or disabled children in order to tug at people’s heart strings.

Little Fred doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

No it doesn’t! By the way, this volume also includes the original illustrations by John Leech, which are beautiful.

One more point – and I don’t see many people commenting on this – is that it’s remarkable how non-religious A Christmas Carol is. It does not mention the birth of Jesus and the direct references to religion are few, with the famous exception of Tiny Tim, or Little Fred, saying “God bless us, every one”. What Dickens helped bring back was rather a Christmas spirit, that both religious and non-religious people can embrace. That is why I think Dickens was so successful in helping Christmas to become such a culture-wide phenomenon.

What is that Christmas spirit, in your eyes?

I think the Christmas spirit in Dickens is concern for the poor and the least fortunate in society – which has become one of our major themes for Christmas, as we often give to charity and think about the less fortunate. That is very much Dickens’s contribution.

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!

Let’s end with the Encyclopedia of Christmas, which takes us from advent to Zagmug, the Sumerian end-of-year festival.

This is a wonderful resource, now published in paperback. It not only has all kinds of interesting articles, but bibliographies if you want to explore things further. If I get stuck, it’s the first place I go to answer questions like: How did we get the candle? Or what is the nutcracker? Or that the name for the Roman new year festival, Kalends, is where we get the term “calendar” from.

Tell us some more titbits. Where did the Christmas tree come from?

The Christmas tree is mostly of German background, dating back to the 17th century and widespread by the 18th century. I think of Christmas as like a snowball which you roll, and which picks things up along the way. The snowball rolls very interestingly here. The German influences reach England because of the House of Hanover, so the German Christmas tree gets brought to England. Then the prints of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with a Christmas tree are published, and cause great interest in the United States. That’s how the Christmas tree becomes popular in the US.

Finally – and of course most importantly – where did gift giving come from?

That’s a complicated history. In the Church we’d like to say that it has to do with the wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus, starting a gift-giving tradition. For much of Christmas history, gift-giving was more token, and sometimes was on St Nicholas’s day rather than on Christmas. But more recently – since the 1800s – it has become a great Christmas tradition. Gifts were given in different ways over time. Early on it was in a stocking, then it was under a small Christmas tree on a table. Now, of course, the Christmas tree has gotten bigger and is on the floor. And the gifts have grown and grown.

Well I will be celebrating Christmas like a good Brit by watching the Queen’s speech and playing Monopoly.

I love it! Wonderful.

Interview by Alec Ash

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.

Bruce Forbes

Bruce David Forbes is Professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College. He has coedited, with Jeffrey Mahan, Religion and Popular Culture in America and coedited, with Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. His book, Christmas: A Candid Historywas published in 2007 by the University of California Press.