The Christmas trees, the feasting, the stockings hanging over the fireplace . . . It’s all pretty standard seasonal fare. But where exactly did our beloved Christmas traditions come from? Historian and bestselling author Judith Flanders explores the unexpected sources of the winter holiday in her fascinating and festive Christmas: A Biography. We asked Flanders a few questions about what she discovered during her research.
I think my favorite tradition I learned about from this book are the Bean Kings, the lucky recipients of a slice of cake with a bean baked into it who were celebrated in medieval Europe and England. Bean kings sound like they were the life of the party! What was your favorite Christmas tradition that you discovered during research?
It probably had to be that boring gifts of underwear have a long history. In 1805, on the great Lewis and Clark expedition, the first expedition to map out the western part of the USA, Captain Lewis gave Lieutenant Clark ‘a present of a Fleeshe Hoserey vest draws & Socks’, with a ‘pr Mockerson’: fleece hosiery, or stockings, and a vest, underpants, socks and moccasins, or slippers.
How much influence do Victorian traditions, rooted in the writings of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, hold on our current ideas about Christmas?
Victorian traditions did make a lot of difference to the holiday: In particular, I explain in the book why I think it is likely that Washington Irving ‘invented’ Santa Claus, rather than drawing on an old Dutch tradition, as he claimed to have done. Dickens, in turn, read Irving. But the most important Victorian elements were not seasonal. It was railways, urbanization, the press and the mass market, all of which were invented, or flourished, in the 19th century, that took older seasonal traditions and either elaborated them, or reshaped them for the new century. This was what created the Christmas we know today.
Why do you think Christmas is so wrapped up in collective nostalgia, a hearkening back to “the good old days”?
Ultimately, my research showed that Christmas isn’t so much wrapped up in nostalgia, as nostalgia is a major part of the holiday. It is a way of creating a collective illusion that life was once better—an illusion we need, one that lets us believe we can get back to that state once more. Because Christmas has always been about nostalgia, and it was never better at some mythical ‘before’ date. In the 4th century, only 30 years after the first recorded Christmas, an archbishop was already preaching against holiday gluttony. And by 1616, a character in a play was looking back to the good old days when Christmas was really Christmas, nothing like the modern day, he said.
Sounds like (over)eating and (over)drinking have been a part of Christmas since Roman times, before it was even called Christmas. What was your favorite Christmas delicacy you found while researching, or what’s your personal favorite holiday treat?
Actually my favourite thing was not a delicacy at all, but perhaps an anti-delicacy. I’ve always thought Christmas pudding was disgusting, greasy and rich and—well, just ick. So I was pleased to find an 18th-century Swiss traveller who was horrified when he tasted the British ancestor to Christmas pudding, then called plum broth, or plum porridge. He was adamant: you had to be English to like it.
You grew up mostly in Canada, but now live in London. Do you see any major differences between the Christmases of Canada and Britain?
I’m sort of a cheat when it comes to Christmas in life as opposed to on the page. I’m Jewish, and my family only made the most token gestures towards Christmas—we had a tree once or twice, I think, but that was it. So the differences I see are mostly from the outside: It seems to me that in Britain there is more emphasis on the Christmas dinner part of the day, in North America, more on the tree and the decorations. But the one thing I found researching was, it’s not just every country that does it differently: Every family does it differently, and every family believes that their way is the only right way.
As your book makes clear, Christmas has evolved a lot since its roots in Roman revelry. Do you see any transformations for the holiday on the horizon?
Well, in some ways I don’t agree with your question. I think the details of the holiday have changed, because the world has changed, but I think the holiday has from the start been about consumption, and it still is. Before the mass market, and industrialization, most of the consumption was food and drink, while now it’s consumer products. But it’s still consumption.
From carols, which originated in the 16th century, and the Nutcracker ballet to It’s a Wonderful Life and Nat King Cole’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” the creative types have always found inspiration in Christmas. What’s your favorite Christmas-themed creative work?
I’ve been a ballet-goer for decades, so my least favourite Christmas pastime is The Nutcracker: I’ve just seen it too often. And I was amazed to realize that Handel’s Messiah was not, until the 20th century, a Christmas tradition at all, but an Easter one. If I had only one Christmas creative work, though, it might just be James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life: I don’t think you can have too many seasonal weepies.
As you point out, Christmas means many things to many different people, from a time of religious celebration to a time for commercial gain. What does it mean for you? Did your views change while writing this book?
I think my great realization when researching the subject was to realize how miraculously chameleon-like Christmas was: how it could be so many different things in so many places to so many different people. That might just be my favorite.
Any Christmas festivities that you’re looking forward to celebrating yourself?
Would I sound too Scrooge-like if I said it was closing my front door and staying home and not talking to anyone? Bah, humbug.