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The Trouble with Christmas

If, like me, toward the end of the year you wish that Christmas would just fuck off and leave you alone, then you may enjoy reading Tom Flynn's The Trouble with Christmas (Prometheus Books, 1993, ISBN 0879758481) as much as I did. I was made aware of its existence several years ago, but only recently got around to buying a copy—I wish I had done so sooner, as it is an absolute gem of a book!

On reading just the sleeve notes on the back cover it immediately became clear that I was going to enjoy the book:

Christian Americans are puzzled when non-Christians complain about Christmas. 'Why whine? We throw this great party, and they get to crash.'

'Crash isn't the word', non-Christians retort. 'You don't even get invited to Christmas. You get drafted.'

(my emphasis), and then some bulleted items, a foretaste of what is to come inside:

  • How many holiday traditions are authentically Christian? (Next to none.)
  • Does the contemporary Christmas holiday have ancient roots? (Hardly. It was largely invented by six eminent Victorians.)
  • Is the Santa Claus myth unhealthy for children? (Yes, Virginia)
  • Are Christmas critics discriminated against? (Is "Scrooge" an insult?)

(The 'Virginia' reference baffled me too, but all becomes fully clear inside, p115!)

The word 'obligation' cropped up several times on the first few pages, and set the tone for me—one simple feels obliged to go along with it all, because, well, everyone likes Christmas don't they? Well actually, no they don't, and some have no desire to partake, but cannot escape because it is simply rammed down their throats. But enough ranting, here are some quotes:

Far from being a global feast of peace and brotherhood, today's Christmas is simply the crowning success story of Anglophone cultural imperialism. [p20]
People who celebrate Christmas have a terrible time understanding people who don't. It is part of the unconscious arrogance that this ubiquitous festival breeds. [p26]
I was startled by the depth of my anger at Christmas. There was no escaping its brutal ubiquity. Life swarmed with Christmas. Christmas suffused. It suffocated. It pervaded the streets, the malls, the workplace, the outdoors, the music on the radio. It left no void into which the nonparticipant could retreat. [p32]

(and I'll add an ironic 'Amen to that brother!' to that last one!)

At the start of his search for the origins of each of the elements of Christmas, he comes out with:

Distinctive, original Christian contributions to the Christmas feast are about as common as diet books at the North Pole. [p37]

and then proceeds to show why.

He gives an excellent 'beginners guide' kind of overview as to how Christianity started in the first place, leading to the view held by some that Jesus never actually existed:

At this stage in my argument you, the reader, may choose to accept or reject these claims [the non-historicity of Jesus] based on your faith orientation. The point to remember is this: From secular humanists to mainstream Protestants, experts on the Bible and ancient mythology agree that putting Christ into Christmas took work. The hardest job might have been clearing space on an already cluttered conceptual workbench for yet one more god-man born of a virgin. [p55, original emphasis]
Even at the time of the ancient Egyptians, the year-end holiday was a birthday season for gods. [p56]

He points out the blatant discrepancies of the nativity and genealogies between two of the four gospels in the bible:

Two out of four isn't even a quorum and, more often than not, the stories told by Matthew and Luke disagree. [p60]

and concludes the section with the syncretism of the various traditions:

Here two contradictory ideas about Jesus intersect. Actually, they collide like an eastbound freight train and a southbound propane truck. [p65]
Jewish Christians would never part with their Messiah, so the genealogies had to stay. Likewise, Gentile converts to Christianity would never part with the virgin birth. Unable to cast off either tradition, Christianity simply held its breath and charged forward carrying them both. The amazing thing is how easily the new religion got away with it. [p66]

(my emphasis!).

Apparently we know very little about the actual Nicholas, but he seems to have pervaded myths and legends of very, very many countries and cultures (there are pages of it!):

In due course, Nicholas became the patron saint of damned near everything. [p79]

In the 1800s, Christmas almost died without a trace:

... Contemporary Christmas is so pervasive that we imagine that its traditions stretch unbroken to medieval Europe and even to Bethlehem. That is an illusion.
    By the early nineteenth century old Christmas lay dying in the English-speaking world. By mid-century, it had died. The authentic English Christmas of boar's head and plum pudding, of mistletoe and caroling, of boy bishops and Father Christmas—the Christmas Anglo-Americans had always striven, however inaccurately, to celebrate—gave a little groan and flatlined. Had social and cultural development followed slightly different paths, today's average American might not even know what Christmas was.
    The Christmas we celebrate today is a revival. So was Frankenstein's monster. Contemporary Christmas is not only new; to some degree it is an accident. [p94, original emphasis]

The book then goes on to explain how Christmas was revived mostly due to the actions and influence of a mere six people: Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Clement C. Moore, Thomas Nast and Francis Church. For me this is probably the most astonishing part of the book—virtually everything we now associate with the season was 'channelled' through one of them!

It is also surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. [p105]

Some may think his treatment of the Jesus myth harsh, but wait till he moves on to Santa Claus and the harm that can do—he absolutely rips it to shreds! (It is one of the longer chapters.) This was one of the many things he said about it which struck a chord with me:

The Santa myth stunts moral development because it encourages children to judge themselves globally, as good or bad persons, rather than to judge positive or negative behaviour. [p130]

and on the damage of lying to children about Santa Claus:

Can parents honestly be surprised when children do not consult them before experimenting with sex, drugs, crime, or destructive relationships—so soon after parents have made it clear that children cannot trust them to provide accurate knowledge of the world? [p148]

The first part of the book examines what Christmas is and where it has come from; the second part looks at what should be done about it, especially in the context of increasing religious diversity and secularism. But there is a problem:

One of the great ironies of Christmas is how little of its content is truly Christian. Once we dispose of the pre-Christian elements, most of what remains is post-Christian, rather than authentically Christian, in origin. What is there about contemporary Christmas that we can view as authentically Christian? Besides midnight mass there is, amazingly, almost nothing else.
    Here we hurtle into the blank wall of paradox. Though almost nothing about Christmas is uniquely Christian, we cannot reduce Christmas wholly to a secular festival. [p155]

So even if Christians don't like the fact that Christmas 'isn't very Christian', to everybody else it most certainly is. There isn't really a concise statement of what his proposed 'solution' is, but perhaps this indicates its direction:

It is time to end the Victorian experiment with a universal Christmas. [p156]

The rest of the book is some well-reasoned arguments as to how we should go about this—I can't say I agree with all of his ideas, but all-in-all it is a very engaging and entertaining book to read!

Online Interviews etc.

There are a number of interesting interviews or talks featuring Tom Flynn out on the internet, here are links to some of them:

Here's a telephone interview of Tom Flynn (it starts about 10 minutes in), conducted by 'Swoopy' of Skepticality/Skeptic Magazine (2005).

As usual for Point of Inquiry podcasts, there is a nice in-depth discussion between the author, Tom Flynn, and the Center for Inquiry's DJ Grothe available here (2006).

Another Point of Inquiry interview, again conducted by DJ Grothe and not exclusively restricted to Christmas, but also covering atheism and science fiction (2008).

Another telephone interview, this time conducted by Minnesota Atheists (2010).

A series of videos (unfortunately not the best quality!) of a talk to 'CASH'—Campus Atheists, Skeptics & Humanists—at the University of Minnesota (2010?).

A more recent Point of Inquiry podcast, this time hosted by Robert M. Price (2011).

[Beware that not all the links seemed to work equally well in the versions of Internet Explorer or Firefox that I use (problems with the plug-ins/scripts/Active X/whathaveyou), so if the audio file/player isn't obvious, it might be worth trying another browser...]

[Page last updated: 25 Dec 2013]