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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

When Christmas was public and profane

In this scene from around 1500, a troupe of mummers in animal costumes performs in a medieval baronial hall at Christmas. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We imagine the Christmas of yesteryear was a religious affair — with devotion to God warding off the commercialism that would later corrupt the holiday.

But in her new book “Christmas: A Biography,” Judith Flanders lays out a very different history.

Medieval Christmas wasn’t all that religious, she writes. It was quite profane, in fact. It was fairs and processions and cross-dressers — all “swilling and riot,” as one cleric put it.

And while the riot would tail off in the centuries that followed, the modern Christmas that emerged was different than we might imagine — from 19th century expectations that men do the cooking and gift-giving, to the contemporary Japanese practice of treating Christmas like Valentine’s Day.

Ideas reached Flanders in London to discuss her myth-busting treatise. The interview is condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Q: We think of Christmas as a holiday that has only recently become tawdry. You write that it’s been tawdry for some time.

A: [Laughs.] I don’t think I used the word “tawdry!” But Christmas has always been a holiday of consumption from its earliest days — it’s what has been consumed that’s changed. In the earlier times, before the Industrial Revolution, before the mass market, it was generally food and drink. Now it’s more consumer goods — as well as food and drink; the drink has been pretty constant.

The first Christmas was established by the bishop of Rome in the 4th century. Within 30 years of that first Christmas, we had the archbishop of Constantinople warning his flock against the perils of feasting to excess and dancing on the day. And nobody warns people about things that aren’t being done. Mothers don’t say, “don’t put beans up your nose” if children don’t put beans up their nose.

Q: Conservatives in the United States talk about a war on Christmas, waged by the secular. But you suggest the first war on Christmas was launched by Christians.

A: The only war on Christmas that has ever existed was spearheaded and executed entirely by Protestant Christians, the very people who are complaining now.


In the 17th century, what you could consider the evangelical wing of the Protestant church — the Puritans — banned Christmas both in the American colonies and in Britain.

The basis for this ban was that there is no scriptural authority for Christmas. There’s nothing about the Nativity as a holiday, as a church holiday, in the Bible.

What they did, of course, by [going] against this holiday was simply reinforce its secular nature. This holiday has always been pretty secular — as I say, it was a day of feasting to excess and dancing. But by banning it, they basically drove whatever congregations they had on Christmas out of the church and into the taverns.

Q: Speaking of wars, you write that the famous Christmas truce during World War I, which saw Allied and German soldiers laying down their arms and coming out of the trenches, wasn’t quite as glorious as we might imagine.

A: As with all things, the reality is messier. The bulk of the truce was occupied not with soccer — there are stories of games, although they tend to be second-hand — what the truce was really for was to collect the dead. There were all of these dead bodies in No Man’s Land.

Q: Christmas is never what we imagine.

A: One of the things about Christmas that I find so remarkable is that today we say, “Oh, Christmas used to be so much better in the old days before it was X, Y and Z.” You know, “today it’s too commercial,” or whatever. I managed to track this back at least as far as 1616, when Ben Jonson had a character in one of his plays say more or less exactly that — you know, the modern Christmas was no good, that Christmas in the old days was the real thing.


I realized by finding this, over the centuries, that the core of Christmas is nostalgia. It’s not an add-on. Our idea that Christmas used to be better is not an extra to Christmas — it is the essence of Christmas. We have to believe that there were better times. We have to believe in a time when society functioned.

Q: You’ve just about ruined Christmas for me. Why do you hate Christmas so much?

A: My job here is done. [Laughs.]

On the contrary, I find the emphasis on ritual and re-affirmation of core beliefs actually very moving, the way we can embrace even the bad sides — the fact that Uncle Fred will get drunk and pick a fight with Aunt Mathilda, once they’ve done it more than three years in a row, we actually look forward to it because it’s part of the ritual.

Q: And why is ritual so important?

A: To feel that life has a pattern. Because otherwise, it’s a random collection of events, and then we die, and get thrown in the crematorium, and it’s all over. We tell ourselves stories to give our lives meaning, to make believe that our lives have a purpose.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.