America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories

America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories

by Bruce David Forbes

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America’s Favorite Holidays explores how five of America’s culturally important holidays—Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving—came to be what they are today, seasonal and religious celebrations heavily influenced by modern popular culture. Deftly distilling information from a wide range of sources, Bruce David Forbes reveals often-surprising answers to questions about each holiday’s traditions. Was Christmas always as commercialized as it is today? Is Thanksgiving a religious or secular holiday? When did we begin trick-or-treating on Halloween? Appealing and insightful, America’s Favorite Holidays satisfies our curiosity about the origins of our holidays and the fascinating ways in which religion and culture mix.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284722
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/27/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 1,258,334
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Bruce David Forbes is Professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College, author of Christmas: A Candid History, and coeditor of Religion and Popular Culture in America.

Read an Excerpt

America's Favorite Holidays

Candid Histories

By Bruce David Forbes


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96044-2



Poll after poll indicates that Christmas is America's favorite holiday. That includes me. While I look forward to many different holidays, and I am especially interested in the five considered in this volume, Christmas is the one that is closest to my heart. My most touching family memories are from Christmastime. I find this season's decorations the most beautiful, its music the most uplifting, and its generous spirit most inspiring. The worship services and spiritual meanings move me.

At the same time I often find myself wishing for more. I recall attending a workshop about how to make Christmas more meaningful. We were asked to read a list of statements and select the ones that were true for us. One of the statements said something like, "When the season comes to an end I find myself refreshed and renewed." I had to laugh, because that was so far from my experience. Everything is so hectic, so pressured, and so expensive, I have to recover once Christmas is over. Is it possible to do anything about the downside of a holiday, and to enhance the other aspects?

It seems to me that the first step in wrestling with this problem is to learn about the holiday, how it began and how it developed and changed. It does not do much good to idealize the past and yearn for a golden age that never was. A realistic understanding of the day and the season could give the most helpful starting point for making decisions about how to approach it in the future.

So, I guess that did give me something of an agenda as I approached my study of the history of Christmas and the other holidays, but I hope it was not a heavy-handed one. Motivated more by curiosity rather than by a desire to prove something, I have had fun developing an overall sense of the story of Christmas, stumbling upon all kinds of interesting nuggets along the way. And it is appropriate to start with Christmas, because it provides an excellent illustration of the three-layer cake outlined in the introduction. The other four holidays will provide interesting twists and variations.


The first step in understanding Christmas is to recognize how much it is rooted in winter celebrations.

I live in the Upper Midwest, which has dramatic winter weather, but I began really thinking about the severities of winter when I took a group of college students on a trip to Alaska, where we spent much of our time in the little village of Willow, about an hour and a half north of Anchorage, still in the southern half of Alaska. We were there in May, but we heard what it could be like in the middle of winter, with only four hours of daylight a day and temperatures as low as forty degrees below zero — before calculating the wind chill. We heard about difficulties surviving winter in little shacks in the woods with no electricity and no running water, and we heard about the struggles some people had with depression, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and suicide, aggravated by winter. I began wondering what it would have been like to live in central or northern Europe in the Middle Ages, probably under similar conditions. Today we have electric lights and thermostats, but we still battle "cabin fever" or SAD, seasonal affective disorder, in the midst of winter. What must it have been like for northern Europeans in those centuries long before modern conveniences? Seen this way, it becomes clear that under some circumstances, winter is difficult to survive. Entering winter is a little like walking into death and hoping that we will come out on the other side.

I began to speculate about what those people in medieval Europe might have done to cope with the difficulties of winter. Here's a great idea: sponsor a big, blowout midwinter party! The logical time to have it would be in the middle of winter, when the days stop getting shorter and are about to grow longer again. That would be in mid to late December. People in a snowbound village could spend half of the winter distracting themselves with the preparations, and then have the party as a break from suffering the cold and the dark. When the party was over, the remainder of winter would be that much shorter. And it is easy to guess what the party would be like. It would be a festival of lights, with candles, and burning logs, and anything else to push back the darkness. It also would feature evergreens, as signs of life when everything else seems to have died, plus other plants that not only stay green but even bear fruit in the middle of winter, like holly or mistletoe. It probably would include gatherings of family and friends for meals and parties, to overcome the isolation of winter. There would be feasts, and drinking, and dancing, and maybe special songs and gifts of some kind.

As it turns out, all over central and northern Europe, early cultures had winter festivities that included almost all of these features. One example was Yule, or Jul, celebrated in the geographical area now called Germany, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. Today people think that the word "Yule" is a synonym for Christmas, but it actually was the name for the pre-Christian winter celebration in that region. Scholars are unsure what the word meant. It might have been "wheel," as in the cycle of seasons, or perhaps "feast" or "sacrifice." The seasonal activities included the slaughter of animals, a lot of drinking, bonfires and candles, and of course the Yule log, ghost stories, and prickly evergreens around windows to keep away evil spirits. An example of a winter festival further south in Europe was the Roman Saturnalia, a late harvest festival varying in length from three to seven days and held between December 17 and 23. The partying was wild and included drunkenness and all kinds of unrestrained activities, but it also featured the candles and fires, greenery, feasting, gifts, and social gatherings that would be expected of a winter party.

Much of what I have just outlined describes Christmas today: outdoor displays of lights, Christmas trees and other evergreen decorations, gatherings of family and friends, feasts, and songs. All are beloved parts of Christmas but they really have nothing to do with a baby in a manger. They are predictable aspects of mid-winter parties that help people cope with winter. This is what is meant when some refer to "the pagan roots of Christmas." "Pagan" was a word used by Christians to refer to something that was non-Christian or pre-Christian, and it is certainly true that Europeans in central and northern Europe had winter festivals before Jesus ever walked the earth. When Christians eventually started celebrating the birth of Jesus in December and then spread their religion into central and northern Europe, they encountered preexisting winter parties and absorbed aspects of these into their Christmas observances. This is an example of the first two layers of the three-layer cake summarized in the introduction. First there were seasonal celebrations, in this case in the middle of winter, and then Christianity came along and added a new layer of meaning to those celebrations.

This combination of two layers sets off an array of very strong and quite contrasting reactions. Some conservative Christians believe that any association with pre-Christian or non-Christian religions and cultural practices will taint Christianity, and thus they urge Christians either to purify Christmas observances of anything "pagan" or to not observe Christmas at all, because it has been too compromised. Some secular voices are amused by the whole situation and lift up the pagan associations to watch Christians squirm. Some modern pagans or neo-pagans, persons who identify with the pre-Christian European religions in their modern forms, joyfully point to the Christian adoption of some of these practices as a validation of the superiority of their nature-based religions. And some Christians just enjoy the holiday and do not see any issue here. My personal approach is different from all of these alternatives.

What I see here is the common humanity of the different groups. All of us, whatever our religion or culture or historical era, have similar needs as human beings to cope with seasonal changes. In the case of winter, I fully understand how the cold and the dark can become oppressive, and so I love driving around to see Christmas lights, and I love the beauty of evergreen decorations and the chance to get together with others. These things lift my spirits in the dead of winter. If I did not live in a culture that already had a winter party, I would start one! All of us share a common human impulse to celebrate and survive, to search for joy and meaning, in the middle of winter.


So, winter came first, and then Christmas was added later, but it took a while.

Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. For the first couple of centuries of early Christianity, there was no annual celebration of the Christ child's nativity at all. This comes as a big surprise to many Christians, because today Christmas and Easter are the two most special days of the Christian year. It was not always that way. Early Christianity was, instead, an Easter-centered religion. The focus was on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The expectation that Jesus Christ would return soon, at any time, and the examples of Christian martyrdom in times of Roman persecution helped accent an emphasis on death and resurrection themes.

As evidence of what was emphasized and what was not, in the early church, compare the emphasis given to Christmas and Easter in the four gospels of the New Testament. Only two of the four give any significant attention to a nativity story. The gospels of Mark and John do not. The Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, who by that time was already an adult. In other words, Mark's gospel totally skips a birth or Christmas story. The Gospel of John includes an elegant passage declaring that "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14), a common scripture text at Christmastime, but John's gospel contains no story of a baby in a manger, no shepherds, and no wise men.

I was well into adulthood before it dawned on me that virtually all of the New Testament readings at Christmastime came from only two of the four gospels, and even then, they told two stories with quite different details. Matthew's account includes the star and the wise men and the escape to Egypt, but no shepherds. Luke's version has the shepherds and the multitude of angels, but no star or wise men. And except for Paul's one comment about Jesus being "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4), the entire New Testament, all twenty-seven books, contains no additional references to the nativity story. Because Christmas has become such a major Christian celebration today, it is difficult for us to step back and realize how little attention the New Testament gives to the birth of Jesus compared with some other subjects. When Christians eventually began an annual nativity observance, they had to bring together the tidbits in Matthew and Luke and then add all sorts of later traditions in order to create a very full story.

In contrast, how many chapters in all four gospels are devoted to the death and resurrection of Jesus? A lot. Paul's letters to early Christians make up much of the Christian New Testament; how much attention does he give to death and resurrection? A lot. Most Christians would agree that these themes are the heart of the gospel message. The New Testament itself is evidence that the early church was Easter centered and that any significant focus on Christmas was a later development.

The eastern church (later to become identified as Eastern Orthodox) began Epiphany observances sometime in the 200s or 300s, on January 6, lifting up many ways that Jesus Christ was made manifest in the world. Epiphany means "showing forth," and the day highlighted many ways that people in the world became aware of how extraordinary Jesus was. Epiphany celebrations variously emphasized Jesus's baptism, public miracles by Jesus early in his ministry (such as turning water into wine at a wedding), and yes, miracles and events surrounding his birth. There was some attention to the birth story, but it was not the only focus for that day. On the other hand, the western part of the early church, centered in Rome, had no equivalent Epiphany observances. The first extant documentary mention of the western church celebrating Jesus's birth appears in the Philocalian Calendar, also known as the Chronograph of 354. It is a collection of documents, something like an almanac, and some of the included texts may date back to 336. Thus, by either 336 or 354, Christians in Rome were celebrating Jesus's birth on December 25. The practice may have begun somewhat before that, but this document is our earliest surviving evidence.

One reason that Christians took so long to start an annual observance of the nativity of Jesus was the Easter emphasis just mentioned. Another reason is that Christians did not know exactly when Jesus was born. In order to have a birthday party for someone, it would help to know their date of birth, but no New Testament passages and no external evidence clearly indicate the month or day in Jesus's case. Some attempted calculations claimed that Jesus was born on March 25 or 28, April 19 or 20, May 20, and November 18, with no real consensus. Another reason for the delay is that the early Christians tended not to celebrate birthdays. In their view that was something Romans, not Christians, did. When Christians remembered early martyrs who died for their faith, they celebrated the dates of their deaths, not their births. Even today, saints' days on Catholic and Orthodox calendars are the dates that they died.

Why did Christians eventually add a celebration of Jesus's birth, and why on December 25? We do not have enough evidence for a clear answer. It would be very helpful if we had a letter or a proclamation from a pope or an emperor declaring when and why Christians were going to start an annual celebration of the birth of Jesus, but we have no such document. It is a good guess that theological reasons were at least a factor. After the Roman persecution of Christians stopped and Christianity became a favored religion, Christians had the time and freedom to argue with one another about who understood Jesus properly. A birthday celebration could be very useful in the midst of these arguments, to declare that Jesus was divine from the moment of his birth or even before, not at some later point during his earthly lifetime.

Whatever the theological reasoning or the calendar calculations, one reality is clear. In choosing December 25, the western church settled on a date that was precisely in the middle of three wildly popular existing Roman winter festivals. First was the Saturnalia, the Roman late harvest celebration already mentioned, with a legendary reputation for excessive partying. This took place in the middle of December. A couple of weeks later came the new year's festival Kalends, which lasted for as many as five days, with feasts and additional uninhibited celebrations. "Kalends" is a word that refers to the first day of the month, and the first day of the year was the most important among them. Today's word "calendar" derives from that term. In between Saturnalia and Kalends fell December 25, the winter solstice by calendars of that time. Romans celebrated December 25 as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, a god whose devotion had been merged with worship of the warrior god Mithras. (In an attempt to be clever, some have said that Christians changed the birthday of a sun god to a birthday of God the Son.) All three celebrations pervaded Roman culture, so Christian leaders had to have been aware of them. It cannot have been accidental that Christian leaders chose to place the birthday observance for Jesus in the midst of these three notable Roman celebrations. As for why they did it, we can only guess. Perhaps they wanted to co-opt the popularity of the existing winter parties in order to promote the acceptance of Christianity among more people. Perhaps they disapproved of how wild the parties were and hoped that adding a Christian celebration would tame them. Perhaps they wanted to compete with the Roman religions head on. Maybe it was all three.


Excerpted from America's Favorite Holidays by Bruce David Forbes. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Christmas
2. Valentine’s Day
3. Easter
4. Halloween
5. Thanksgiving


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