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Spirit of Christmas past

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‘The Origins of Christmas’ takes us through the tussle over deciding Jesus’ birth date.

Ah, Christmas, that glorious May 20 holiday, when we recall how Jesus was born in a cave with the aid of an anxious midwife. Wait, start over. Ah, Christmas, that fine feast day of March 25, with no Bethlehem census, no three kings. Scratch that. Ah, Christmas - oops, sorry, there is no Christmas because if Jesus is pure spirit (as many early believers believed), then how could he, physically, be born? Besides, only pagans are tacky enough to celebrate birthdays.

I’m messing with you. But that’s because “The Origins of Christmas’’ (Liturgical Press, 2004) messed with me - in a good way. All those oddities listed above lie in the holiday’s history and color and sparkle forth in this short, fascinating volume by Joseph F. Kelly, a professor of religious studies at John Carroll University. There are plenty of books about the Santa and sleigh bells version of Christmas (yes, I’ll get to them) but this one considers the wellspring of it all.

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Christmas - Christ’s Mass - had a slow start. It wasn’t even celebrated until the third or fourth century, and only cropped up in writing a half-century after Jesus died. That’s because the first Christians were convinced Armageddon was on deck, making resurrection a more pressing topic than birth. Also, why write books if the end is near? Later, when there was no apocalypse now, the gospels were composed, and Matthew and Luke (but not Mark or John) felt compelled to offer a birth back story.

In other words, out of 27 books in the New Testament, only two bring up the Nativity. And none mention Christmas, that is the Feast of the Nativity. How did we get from such silence to “Silent Night?’’ Kelly takes us through the tussle to reach consensus on a plausible birth date, since no one knew when Jesus was born (May 20 and March 25 were in the running), and how our modern Noel is an eggnog of gospel, apocrypha, medieval add-ons, Biblical borrowing (the ox and donkey in the manger, for instance, are on loan from Isaiah 1:2-3), and hitching onto Roman feast days. Christmas would finally land at the winter solstice, to co-opt cult of the sun worshippers and Saturnalia’s 100-bottles-of-mead-on-the-wall festivalgoers.

The wild side of Christmas, of course, brightens the secular literature; as David Sedaris reminds us, Santa is an anagram for Satan. His “Holidays on Ice’’ (Little, Brown, 1997) features a collection of his Christmas stories in one slim book “perfect for use as a last-minute coaster or ice scraper.’’ His seriously funny piece on working as an elf at Macy’s is here, plus satires of luxe gift giving (“ultrasuede basketballs, pewter knapsacks and solar-powered card shufflers’’) and a crankypants critique of a Christmas pageant that lasted “roughly the same length of time it takes a giant redwood to grow from seed to full maturity.’’

Funny and more figures into the hefty anthology “Christmas at the New Yorker: Stories, Poems, Humor, and Art’’ (Random House, 2003). It’s a stuffed goose of Christmas writing from such greats as John Updike, John Cheever, and Alice Munro, plus older double-initial luminaries (H.L. Mencken, S.J. Perelman). There’s J.F. Powers’s grouchily lovely 1957 story about priestly faith (“A Couple of Nights Before Christmas’’), and E.B. White’s moving 1944 Notes and Comments on the profound gift of the war’s near end. “Who wouldn’t love the Norman coast for Christmas? . . . And then St. Lô, and the whole vista of France. When have we received such presents?’’

Another wartime Christmas gets a touching treatment in “In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Story’’ by historian David McCullough (Shadow Mountain, 2010, includes DVD). It’s a quirky scatter of material about the inspiring speeches given by FDR and Winston Churchill from the White House on Christmas Eve, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and McCullough’s take on the origins of two Christmas hymns. “This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle,’’ declared the prime minister. Still, he added, we must “make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm.’’

Truman Capote had his own world of storm as a child, sent to live with relatives, his only friend an elderly female cousin named Sook Fauk. But out of this sadness came perhaps the most beautiful Christmas story of modern times. If you’re bereft of holiday spirit this year, just read “A Christmas Memory,’’ first published in Mademoiselle in 1956 (this 2006 Knopf edition includes illustrations and a CD audiobook). Truman and his beloved friend collect pecans for fruitcakes, fly kites with their terrier, Queenie, and make each other gifts. In this passage, Sook wonders if she’ll see the Lord at the end of her life: “ ‘I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are’ - her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone - ‘just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.’ ’’ Whether you read about Christmas through faith or thanksgiving, enjoy - with emphasis on the joy - this best of days.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. whittemore@comcast.net.
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