Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas
What Victorian anxieties have to do with Coke, candy canes and mythbusting the Bible.
By Maria Popova
How did a holiday that began in pagan Rome become the centerpiece of the Christian tradition and even a secular global celebration of consumerism across faiths? In Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas, a fascinating 1997 History Channel documentary, historian Harry Smith traces the origins of Christmas and how many of the relative newcomer traditions like candy canes and the Christmas tree came to be. From how cartoonist Thomas Nast defined the look of Santa Claus to how Coca Cola subsequently appropriated it to the profound socioanthropological learnings from Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol, the documentary reveals the rich and surprising history of a holiday that has become a pillar of the modern calendar.
Christmas Unwrapped is available on YouTube in five parts or, for the quality aficionados, as a full-length DVD film from the A&E archives.
The church knew it could not outlaw the pagan traditions of Christmas, so it set out to adopt them. The evergreens traditionally brought inside were soon decorated with apples, symbolizing the Garden of Eden. These apples would eventually become Christmas ornaments.”
The documentary features commentary from renowned historians Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas and Penne L. Restad, who penned Christmas in America: A History.
If the shepherds are out in the fields, watching their flock by night, we’re not talking about one of the cold spells in the heart of winter.”
The film also dives into historical scholarship to debunk some fundamental premises of Christmas: For instance, a closer look of the Christian scriptures reveals Christ was likely born in the spring, not in December.
[Dickens’] Christmas Carol showed the Victorians what could be the use and the reading of Christmas in a society which was quite pleased with itself in a way but which, nevertheless, had fears about inequality, about materialism, about, perhaps, too rapid change.”
Certainly today, most of the churches revel in the celebrations as completely as do the corporate malls. That’s not a bad thing — it actually goes back to the sources of this kind of holiday, where we recognize that people have deep needs at this time of year to connect with that which is very important, but also to celebrate.”
Published December 25, 2010