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Christmas: A Candid History Paperback – November 13, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this brief sketch of the history of Christmas celebrations and traditions, Forbes draws heavily on previous scholarship by the likes of Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas) and Leigh Schmidt (Consumer Rites), offering an overview that is informed yet concise. Forbes opens by rehearsing biblical scholars' debates about Jesus' birth, showing how little we can glean from the New Testament, then moves into discussions of winter festivals in early church history and the Roman Empire. The more compelling chapters are the latter ones on Christmas in America, discussing its surprising rise to prominence in the mid-19th century. Although this is a secondary work, Forbes does add some tidbits to the debates; for example, he pinpoints cartoonist Thomas Nast as primarily responsible for the mythology of Santa's elf-ridden workshop in a far-off North Pole. Small historical errors mar the text, as when Forbes fails to distinguish between Puritans and Pilgrims, or credits British activist William Wilberforce with the Victorian moral revival, when Wilberforce died before Victoria's accession. However, the book is valuable for its well-proven insistence that Christmas has always been as much a social and commercial festival as a religious one, debunking naïve assumptions that it used to be a purely spiritual holiday in a bygone halcyon age. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Colloquial, straightforward, and colorful. . . . Forbes makes the details delicious.”
(Historian Magazine 2009-10-01)

“Wonderfully perceptive as well as entertaining.”
(Santa Fe New Mexican 2009-12-18)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 187 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (November 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520258029
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520258020
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.6 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #949,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Kearney VINE VOICE on November 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Bruce David Forbes' CHRISTMAS: A CANDID HISTORY is a must read for anyone who loves the holiday season, or at least anyone who loves the religious aspect of the holiday season and enjoys the secular aspects as well. In this slim volume, Forbes looks at Christmas from its earliest incarnations to our present day celebrations. This is not a hackneyed presentation of common beliefs about Christmas. Forbes offers fresh perspectives about many commonly held theories about Christmas, especially what may be the three most common assumptions about Christmas, namely that it's a Christmas answer to winter solstice celebrations, that most of the symbols are pagan symbols with a Christian flair, and that Charles Dickens is responsible for Christmas as we know it today. For Forbes, Christmas is both all of the things and none of these things.

Forbes begins by looking at the variety of winter solstice celebrations since Christmas is a winter holiday then ventures into the religious aspects, reminding readers that Easter, not Christmas was the central Christian holiday and, for that matter is still supposed to be the central Christian celebration. He then ventures into looking at Christmas symbols such as the Christmas tree, the poinsettia, St. Nicholas becoming Santa Claus, Christmas in Victorian England and the United States, and Christmas as we know it today. Throughout the book Forbes uses the analogy of a snowball as a way of explaining Christmas. If someone wishes to make a snowman, it starts as a small ball of snow, gets rolled around and picks up all sorts of things along the way: dirt, twigs, rocks, dead leaves, etc. as well as snow. The result is the large snowball that becomes the base, torso, or head of the snowman. Much of how we now celebrate Christmas started the same way.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Hawks Gull on October 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This Christmas I am buying a dozen copies of this delightful little book to give friends who suffer holiday stress. In addition to providing clarification on the actual evolution of the holiday, it offers the excellent suggestion that the Twelve Days of Christmas (from December 25 until January 6) be the time for a peaceful religious celebration of Christmas. Forbes embraces both the commercial holiday and the religious celebration and encourages readers to style their holiday celebration to suit their own needs.

The only false historical note which sounded for me occurs on page 62 of the hardback edition when Forbes states that "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens fails to mention religion except for three words indicating that Scrooge went to church. That is simply incorrect.

In addition to the many instances of "God bless you" and "God save you" sprinkled throughout the story, there are specific references to Christ when Bob Cratchit recalls Tiny Tim hoping "the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see."

And Marley's Ghost asks of Scrooge, "...Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men..."

And there are a number of other religious references to Christ's birth throughout Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

I checked the notes to see whether or not Forbes had cited the Dickens work. He had indeed cited an annotated edition of "A Christmas Carol" edited by Michael Patrick Hearn. Forbes would do well to spend a little more time with Dickens this Christmas.

The book is still valuable for distilling an abundance of historical material into an easy and pleasant read to soothe the holidazed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By lindapanzo on November 6, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I love reading books about Christmas, particularly the history of the holiday, though almost any aspect is fair game, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, I've probably read upwards of 50 books Christmas-themed books. Anyway, I try to read at least a few Christmas books every year.

This book wasn't geared for someone who's done a lot of reading on the development of the holiday over the years. However, it's a nice overview of the literature on how Christmas developed. I've read many of the books cited. Even so, it was informative and, since it has a terrific bibliography, it gave me lots of ideas for future Christmas reading.

If you don't want to read all those other books, this would be a great choice to start with. There's some talk of the spiritual but more of the book focuses on the secular. It was very good but a bit basic for me. I'd recommend it as a great starter book on the subject.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Steven H Propp TOP 100 REVIEWER on January 26, 2011
Format: Paperback
Bruce David Forbes (born 1948) is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and is the department chair and professor of religious studies at Morningside College. He is also the author of Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series and Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition.

He writes in the Introduction to this 2007 book, "This book seeks to provide a brief, candid history of Christmas, for general audiences, for people who, like me, wonder how the Christmas celebration got to be the way it is. The word 'candid' highlights one of my intentions. Many acquaintances have told me they want to hear the 'real' story of Christmas, something more than sugar-coated or romanticized versions. And when I hear explanations of certain Christmas traditions, I too think, is this just a great story that tugs at my heart strings, or is it also historical? How did it really happen? Do we even know?"

Here are some quotations from the book:

"However, the terms Yule and Jul clearly existed in the (Scandinavian) region before Christianity arrived, associated with winter activities of some sort, although scholars are not exactly sure what the words meant." (Pg. 11)
"Yet today some Eastern Orthodox Christians observe the birthday of Christ on a different day than most Catholics and Protestants. Why is that? ... the variation has to do with a transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars... Orthodox Christians decided to keep the old Julian calendar ...
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