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
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
A reduced-price e-Book version is also available from the publisher.