Emily Hunter McGowin’s Christmas is part of a series of books on the seasons of the liturgical calendar. Esau McAulley is the series editor and author of the book on Lent. The series also includes Tish Warren on Advent, Flemming Rutledge on Epiphany, and Emilio Alvarez on Pentecost.
Christmas is a nostalgic holiday and one that is relatively modern. It is not that the trope of Christmas being a pagan holiday is true (the book handles this well.) But our modern focus on gift giving and family and sentimentality is relatively recent. The Holy Post podcast recently had two episodes that talked about this. One was about St Nicholas, and the other was about David Taylor’s Christianity Today article on American Christmas. Taylor’s article is about how Christmas was not celebrated widely in the United States until the late 1800s. Congress met on Christmas when it fell on a weekday until the 1850s. Celebrating Christmas was against the law in Puritan New England from the mid-17th century because of its association with Catholicism and because of the history of how the celebration had been associated with debauchery in England.
But as Taylor points out, Queen Victoria and her German husband started using Christmas Trees to decorate and modeled a family-centered celebration of Christmas that was more common in Germany. A few years later, Charles Dickens published a Christmas Carol. And when it was published, few people would have had Christmas off of work. But the story’s popularity did shame employers into giving Christmas day off.
The final aspect that made the modern celebration of Christmas what it is now is art. In 1823, A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Moore was published, which we have all heard with the starting line, “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…” And then, a series of artists over the next 100 years or so, shaped the image of Santa Claus into what we know now. Most important are the images Haddon Sundblom did for Coca-Cola that used Coke’s colors to associate Santa Claus with Coca-Cola.
I think it is important that we understand that background, some of which is discussed in McGowin’s book, to know that Christmas’s association with family, nostalgia, and consumerism is fairly new. McGowin’s focus is on the spiritual and theological reasons for celebrating Christmas. First, she grounds the celebration in a tradition older than the 18th century and grapples with why we celebrate Jesus’ birth when we do. Then, she explores the importance of the incarnation and what the incarnation means in regard to the redemption of creation. And there is a good discussion about why Jesus’ poverty was not incidental to his incarnation.
The twelve days of Christmas (that time from Dec 25 to Epiphany on Jan 6) are intended to be a celebration. But it is a celebration that includes holding space for grief and lament by remembering St Stephen (a Christian martyr) and the Holy Innocents (the murder of all the boys under 2 by Herod). Later, Thomas Becket’s martyrdom was also added to the twelve days of Christmas.
Christmas gifts were initially focused on giving to the poor, not family and friends. That shift is also worth noting because of its theological implications.
Except for Emilio Álvarez, all the rest of the authors of this series are Anglican or Episcopal priests. It makes sense that a series on the importance of the liturgical calendar is written by people who adhere to the liturgical calendar. I lean strongly toward Anglican theology and practice, but it is worth noting that there is a lot of reference to Anglican theology in the broad sense of that term, which is still a fairly small group among Evangelical-leaning Christians to whom the book is written.
This is a short book that would work well in a small group. It is short enough to read it in a couple of hours and discuss it in two or three sessions.