When I was affiliated with Harvard College’s Lowell House in the early 2000s, community leaders Diana Eck and Dorothy A. Austin held an annual yule log ceremony to welcome the holidays. “We like to go back to the old pagan bottom line,” said Diana.
According to a new book by Andy Thomas, we’re all toeing that pagan bottom line, whether consciously or not. Christmas: A Short History from Solstice to Santa reveals that the impulse for a winter solstice celebration is just about as old as humanity itself. No matter what form it takes, people tend to find a way to come together to splurge a little and ward off the encroaching darkness.
There have been attempts to outlaw Christmas; Thomas is sufficiently fascinated by ill-fated Reformation bans that he devotes an entire chapter to them. Martin Luther himself was a Christmas fan, though, so even the greatest upheaval in the history of Christendom couldn’t stop the party.
The Puritans frowned on Christmas, which only had the effect, Thomas suggests, of inflating American Thanksgiving to a quasi-Christmas status. The main event, of course, came back, and by the 20th century spread of commercial Christmas, the U.S.A. was setting the global pace: for millions of Macy’s Parade watchers, Thanksgiving and Christmas now bookend one big festive season.
The author does bust the myth that Coca-Cola’s signature color scheme was the inspiration for Santa’s red-and-white palette; that predates Claus’s 1930s debut as a soda pitchman. On the book’s wildest page, Thomas cites evidence that the colors came from psychoactive mushrooms found in Scandinavia: they can be fed to reindeer to dilute the effects (drink Prancer’s piss for a gentler high), and were occasionally delivered by shamans who climbed down the smoke holes of Saami yurts. Talk about an origin story!
Although Thomas keeps to his promise of “a short history,” he covers a lot of ground in the compact volume’s 144 pages. He has to: how could any history of Christmas omit discussion of cards (the first was controversial because it seemed to show a child sharing adults’ boozy toast), presents, carols, Charles Dickens, Clement C. Moore, trees, Virginia, the Magi, and mistletoe?
They’re all here, in a parade of Christmas cheer that spans millennia. In the end, Thomas has a reassuring message: however you do your holidays, don’t worry that you’re doing it wrong. “Christmas can be what you want it to be, wherever you are, and whether your celebration is grand or modest.” You don’t even have to worry about whether your chosen holiday history is long enough. A short one will do.