Christmas: A Candid History

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IT HAD TO HAPPEN. UNDER the tinsel, wrapping paper and cards, Christmas has become a subject of scholarly interest. This is not from a theological angle where Christians have written extensively since Victorian times on the importance of Christmas. Just why we celebrate the way we do is increasingly a matter of debate.

Determining the meaning of Christmas is not a new idea. After all, Stephen Law in his 2003 book, The Xmas Files: The Philosophy of Christmas, presented a feisty and engaging overview. He asked: "Is Christmas a festival that atheists can, in good conscience celebrate?"

Bruce David Forbes goes some way to answering this and other Christmas conundrums. In his limpid and accessible book, Christmas: A Candid History, Forbes argues that it all depends on what Christmas you celebrate.

If you have ever wondered why shoppers rush like lemmings to emporiums and suburban consumer barns for bargains, Forbes provides some reassuring and indeed comforting insights. Even so, he observes: "I am frustrated by how hectic and commercialised the season has become, and worried that all of the cultural trappings can overwhelm spiritual aspects of Christmas."

If readers are looking for a rationale for celebrating Christmas with a renewal of its traditional religious significance, then they will be disappointed. This is not Forbes' intention. He gives an analysis of the consumer festival Christmas has now become while drawing a clear distinction between money and belief. He takes no moral position....

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