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Whatever you know about Christmas, you can be absolutely certain that it’s – wrong?
Everyone knows that Christmas used to be a day of religious observance, until the commerce and modernity corrupted it. We know that Santa was Dutch. We know that Christmas trees were first introduced to the English-speaking world by Prince Albert.
In truth, as Judith Flanders explores in her new overview of Christmas, and how it came to be, none of this is remotely true. Religious observance? Thirty years after the first recorded Christmas, the Archbishop of Constantinople was already warning that too many people were spending the day, not in worship, but in partying and eating to excess. Santa was Dutch? That would have surprised the anti-saint Dutch Reformed Church. As to trees, there may have been Christmas trees erected in the USA when Prince Albert’s father was still a child.
Some things, however, never change. In 1805, on the Lewis and Clark expedition, the first US government-sponsored expedition of discovery, Lewis gave Clark ‘a present of a Fleeshe Hoserey' – fleece hosiery, that is, socks.
And other things are more varied than we expect. In the 1620s and 1630s Champlain presided over Christmas feasts of venison, squirrel and wildfowl, eel and salmon, and ate sweets made with maple-sugar, that new-world culinary innovation. A century later, Pennsylvania Germans brought their knödel to south-eastern New Brunswick, where it was transformed into a ‘traditional’ Christmas dish, poutine rapée.
Christmas is all things to all people: a religious festival, a family celebration, a period of (over)-eating and -drinking. In her new book, Christmas: A Biography, bestselling author and acclaimed social historian Judith Flanders casts a sharp eye on myths, legends and history to draw a picture of the season as it has never been seen before.
Judith Flanders is the author of the bestselling The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed(2003); A Circle of Sisters (2001), which was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award; the New York Timesbestselling The Invention of Murder (2001), shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-fiction; The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (2012), shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times History Book of the Year; and The Making of Home (2014). She is also the author of Christmas: A Biography (2017). In her copious leisure time, she also writes the Sam Clair series of comic crime novels.
This lecture is brought to you by the Friends of the McGill Library.