Everything You Didn’t Know about Christmas

By Service, Emily McFarlan Miller —. Religion News | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), December 14, 2017 | Go to article overview

Everything You Didn’t Know about Christmas


Service, Emily McFarlan Miller —. Religion News, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen.

You know Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized it.

You know the Christmas holiday has strayed from its religious roots and observances.

But, author Judith Flanders says, “Anything you think you know about Christmas is wrong.

“No, Prince Albert didn’t bring the Christmas tree to England. No, the Dutch did not invent Santa Claus. No, Santa Claus’ red suit did not come from Coca-Cola. You could just go on and on forever.”

Flanders dispels myths and misunderstandings about Christmas in her new book, “Christmas: A Biography.”

She is a scholar of 19th-century history who previously has written about everyday life in Charles Dickens’ London and about Victorian domestic life. She says the holiday was a “natural” topic for her. “The 19th century was a period where a lot of things we understand Christmas to be today crystallized.”

Here’s what she learned about a few familiar traditions.

Religious holiday … but not

More than half of all Americans — and 71 percent of white evangelical Christians — believe that the religious aspects of the holiday, the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, are emphasized less than they were in the past, according to a poll released this week by Pew Research Center.

But from the very beginning, Flanders says, “we have a holiday that has always been about eating and drinking.”

Since the 19th century, the focus of Christmas consumption has been on purchasing and giving gifts, she says. But there are warnings against excesses within decades of the bishop of Rome setting the date of Christmas on Dec. 25, according to the historian.

“We have the archbishop of Constantinople warning his flocks against feasting to excess and too much dancing on the day,” she says.

“We know historically nobody takes time to warn people against things they are not doing. You only see warnings about things that are happening. So we know that within 30 years of the day of the bishop of Rome’s announcement, we had a day that was pretty much given over to feasting, to excess and dancing. So it’s always been that.”

Santa Claus is coming to town

For centuries, Christmas has been part Christian celebration of Christ’s birth and part cultural celebration revolving around Santa Claus and giving gifts, she says.

The story of Santa Claus is popularly thought to have originated in the life of St. Nicholas. The fourth-century bishop of Myra famously threw three sacks of gold through a nobleman’s window to provide dowries to his daughters, according to a 1260 compilation of the lives of the saints called “The Golden Legend.” By the 16th century, the story goes, he was traveling the Netherlands on the eve of his feast day in December, bringing gifts to good children and lumps of coal to others.

But St. Nicholas may not have been a real person. He wasn’t mentioned until hundreds of years after he would have lived, according to Flanders. And it’s unlikely Dutch immigrants brought the jolly old elf with them to America. …

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