This is a wonderfully readable and succinct history of a most misunderstood holiday. The author is a Christian who understands that people have been throwing late-December parties for much more than two thousand years. As he puts it, "A midwinter carnival is a very understandable way for human beings to cope with winter, and yes, the widespread human impulse to party in the face of winter has influenced the development of Christmas." Early Christians, however, did *not* celebrate Christmas; and when they did, the holiday looked nothing like it does now.
None of this is news to admirers of Stephen Nissenbaum's outstanding "The Battle For Christmas," which Forbes respectfully cites. But Forbes manages to gather a great deal of information in his little book, much of which *was* new to me. I didn't know before I read this book that:
--Norman Rockwell's parents decided to send him to art school after seeing a drawing he did of Ebenezer Scrooge.
--One of the earliest legends told about Saint Nicholas insisted that as an infant, he refused to breast-feed on Wednesdays and Fridays, the traditional days of fasting.
--"Kris Kringle" is an American mutilation of the German word "Christkindel," which means "Christ-child."
--The author of the famous "Yes, Virginia" letter wasn't given a byline, so his identity wasn't revealed to the public until after his death.
--The founder of Hallmark was a woman, Joyce Hall.
This book isn't a collection of Christmas trivia, though. Forbes does an excellent job of mapping the evolution of the holiday. He also keeps a cheerfully level tone, though his affection for the holiday shines through. He urges tolerance toward those people who "really enjoy Christmas [but] are not especially interested in its religious aspects," and brings up an unusual example of the holiday's secular appeal: Christmas is *huge* in Japan.
"There never was a pure spiritual Christmas," Forbes points out in his last chapter, "Wrestling With Christmas":
"We human beings have a tendency to create golden ages of the past, when all was supposedly wonderful before complicating factors intruded and ruined everything. In most cases, the golden age is an idealized dream: the actual Christmas that early Christians experienced was both a boisterous seasonal party and a religiously meaningful observance. Both."
This book is an excellent resource for anyone who'd like to learn the real story behind Christmas. Forbes also offers some moving (but not mawkish) ideas for those who want the holiday to be more meaningful and less commercial. All this *and* an annotated biography, yet the book weighs in at under 200 pages. It's a perfect read for a busy month.