Christmas: A Biography

by Judith Flanders, 256pp, Picador, £15

The crisp and quirky title tells us that this is an investigation into the social phenomenon of Christmas and not an exploration of the story of the Incarnation as told in the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Judith Flanders is a cultural historian who has previously examined the Victorian house, murder and the idea of home. To this volume she brings all the inquisitive and demythologising energy that makes this genre so readable and interesting.

Nonetheless, writing outside the Christian faith does expose her to some inaccuracies. She tells us that religion “is a small element in Christmas as we know it” – this is only true for Western secularists.

Flanders also finds the Gospel accounts historically “problematic”. She questions the existence of St Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra, and tells us that the focal point of medieval Christmas for the majority was not the birth of Christ but “eating and drinking and entertainment”. This is to ignore the eternally human interplay between feasting and fasting, piety and jollity, God and Mammon.

Yet for those who are interested in how we arrived at our current extravagant and incoherent mishmash of stockings, wreaths, decorated trees, carols, mistletoe and turkeys in the Western world, this book provides a humorous and informative guide. Flanders also offers droll commentary on what are thought of as “ancient customs” – indeed, the 18th-century fashion for antiquarianism introduced overnight a slew of sincerely believed “traditions”.

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