Christmas book is a treasure trove of history, symbols, songs and stories

Review | Christmas, Celebrating the Christian History of American Symbols, Songs and Stories, by Angie Mosteller

Reviewed by Jon Kennedy

This 472-page treasure trove of Christmas lore is a virtual encyclopedia of American Christmas traditions, including sheet music for 20 favorite Christmas hymns and carols, with lyrics and histories of how the songs originated and, in many cases, how they evolved.

And typical of author Angie Mosteller's resourcefulness is her research finding that although most people may think the lyrics for "Away in A Manger" were composed by Martin Luther, she cites a reference librarian at the Library of Congress who was unable to trace the words any farther back than 19th-century America and found no memory or evidence of the carol in older German hymnals and Christmas lore. (Luther, of course, was the 16th century German clergyman who founded the Lutheran Church, which he called the Evangelical Church and, by extension, was the founder of Protestantism.)

In the book's section on the Christmas tree, Mosteller concludes that the theory that Luther originated that traditional symbol of Christmas is one of the three most plausible explanations of how Christmas trees came about and, if he was not the first to trim an evergreen as a Christmas decoration, he was probably the first to light candles attached to one, an innovation that quickly became universal and eventually led to the invention of electric Christmas tree lights.

The origin, history, and uses of Christmas trees is one of 20 symbols and images of Christmas Mosteller covers, with other topics ranging from angels to wreaths. Twenty Christmas stories and poems, with detailed introductions about how they originated, make up the longest portion of the book, some 150 pages, and make great family reading before and during Christmas. The biblical texts about the birth of Christ are among them, though most are fictional stories of Christmas including O Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and a selected reading from Charles Dickens' s A Christmas Carol.

Though Californian Mosteller's own academic and professional background are in evangelical Protestantism, her book shows great breadth of knowledge in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well.

For example, this Eastern Orthodox reviewer was surprised to find on page 19 that the December 25 date the churches eventually set for Christmas was derived by calculating the Nativity as nine months after the older feast of the Annunciation (March 25) rather than the Annunciation (the Angel's declaring to Mary that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah) being set nine months earlier than Nativity.

This is evidence that, despite its centrality in today's churches and despite ample records about Christ's birth in two of the Gospels, Christmas was among the last feasts (celebrations of events recorded in the Gospels) added to the early church's calendar. Mosteller gives five takes on the origin and history of Christmas, including the evidence suggesting that Jesus was not born in December and how pagan celebrations around the winter solstice influenced the way Christmas is celebrated. For example, she draws a parallel between the Roman pagan celebration on December 25 of "the birth of the unconquered sun" with an early-church emphasis of the prophecies by the Old Testament prophet Malachi of the appearance of a messiah who would be the "sun of righteousness."

With a cover price of $24.99, Christmas: Celebrating the Christian History of American Symbols, Songs and Stories, is available online from the publisher at celebratingholidays.com and amazon.com. A reduced-price e-Book version is also available from the publisher.

 

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