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hot topic covers december 2017

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American Christmas cards, 1900-1960, [ed.] by Kenneth L. Ames with Caitlin Dover et al. Bard Graduate Center/Yale, 2011. 260p ISBN 0300176872 pbk, $40.00; ISBN 9780300176872 pbk, $40.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2012

This exhibition catalogue was created as a class project by 14 students at Bard Graduate Center. Students worked with faculty member Ames, who teaches the history of material culture. They were given access to private collections of over 6,000 Christmas cards. The students sorted, categorized, and did research, culling down to the most significant or interesting cards. They also attempted to identify artists, printing processes and material, publishers, and dates, and to place the cards in the context of 20th-century history. The catalogue features hundreds of American Christmas cards divided into 25 subject areas and/or themes such as “Candles,” “Poinsettias,” “Winter,” and even “Cute.” Four sections review the history of 19th-century Christmas cards and other holiday ephemera. Few of the cards have identifiable artists. Twentieth-century commercial artists are poorly documented, and many publishers of their works are now gone, as noted in other volumes, e.g., Carol Fitzgerald’s The Rivers of America: A Descriptive Bibliography (CH, Feb’02, 39-3117). While beautifully illustrated, the illustrations in this volume are separated from their descriptions and appear at the back of the book. An index of identified artists and publishers would have been useful. A bibliography is included. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through researchers/faculty; general readers. —N. J. Quinlan, Nova Southeastern University

Crump, William D. The Christmas encyclopedia. McFarland, 2001. 346p ISBN 0786410345, $55.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2002

Crump’s contribution to Christmas lore is well conceived and neatly laid out, with 340 entries on songs, foods, decorations, and Christmas themes in literature, the arts, and the media. The entries include numerous late-20th-century items connected with Yule celebrations, e.g., the Berenstain Bears, Flintstones, and holiday productions of the Nutcracker. Crump’s index makes available 25 pages of minutiae, including motifs, titles, authors, and performers. Coverage of world customs extends to Italy’s La Befana, Sweden’s St. Lucia, street dancers of St. Kitts, Kwanzaa, and Père Noël. Biblical elements are not always in balance with kitsch. One disappointing entry, the Chrismon Tree, dismisses in one paragraph a major form of religious decoration. The massive index manages to include Yom Kippur, Advent, Herod the Great, Slaughter of the Innocents, and Epiphany, but omits the prophecies of Isaiah, the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and the frequently performed “The Carol of the Birds” and “O Magnum Mysterium.” Crump commendably summarizes key data and cross-references such tidbits as Saint Stephen’s Day, Feast of Asses, the Russian Grandfather Frost, and the Fat Albert Christmas Special. The text contains an adequate if not generous number of line drawings but lacks sources for each entry. The five-page bibliography includes print and electronic works. Summing Up: For public and school libraries and personal reference collections. —M. E. Snodgrass, independent scholar

Deacy, Christopher. Christmas as religion: rethinking Santa, the secular, and the sacred. Oxford, 2016. 223p bibl index ISBN 9780198754565, $45.00; ISBN 9780191069550 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2017

Deacy’s Christmas as Religion functions on two planes: the cultural-historical and the theoretical. The cultural-historical account Deacy (Univ. of Kent, UK) gives revolves mostly around 20th-century filmic representations of Christmas. His finely textured accounts of the way Christmas films spin the flax of transcendence out of the mundane and the earthly—from Scrooge to the Grinch to Home Alone—are bold and creative. Film buffs will cotton to this book. However, the theoretical stakes are a bit more tenuous. Deacy claims that the market-oriented practices of modern Christmas—not just in popular film but also in the manic consumerist culture of shopping—represent a powerful form of modern religiosity, one that stands distinct from Christianity itself. And yet, Deacy’s descriptions of the way that the materialist religion of Christmas functions eschatologically and soteriologically in the pursuit of perfection, promised lands, and resurrection leave the reader wondering how distinct the religion of Christmas is from Christianity after all. Deacy hopes to separate a category of “religion per se” from Christianity, but his account of religion has the effect of knitting the two together ever more securely. Going beyond providing an account of Christmas as a distinct religious activity, Deacy suggests Christianity’s persistence as an enduring cultural framework. Summing Up: Recommended. With reservations. General readers. —J. Kahn, Vassar College

Feldman, Stephen M. Please don’t wish me a merry Christmas: a critical history of the separation of church and state. New York University, 1997. 395p ISBN 0814726372, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 1997

Despite its regrettable populist title, Feldman’s book recounts a serious tale that counters Stephen Carter’s Culture of Disbelief (CH, Mar’94). Employing a postmodern “critical social narrative,” Feldman (Univ. of Tulsa) claims that principles like religious liberty and the separation of church and state must be understood as instruments of power that “help reproduce the Christian domination of American society and culture” at the expense of religious outgroups, especially American Jews. For nine chapters, an extensive “critical history” argues that separation of church and state “emerged as political and religious development” beginning with early Christianity and evolving over two millennia. Although he does not reject these American principles, Feldman, after reviewing the Supreme Court’s religious liberty cases since 1945, claims the “separation of church and state does not equally protect the religious liberty of all, including outgroups, and does not determine judicial outcomes in religion clause cases. The true story is much more complex.” Feldman concludes that rather than a culture of disbelief, the US is in the grip of Christian cultural imperialism. Feldman’s book, while repetitive and suffering the limitations that afflict most postmodern methodologies, is an intriguing alternative to the standard account. Summing Up: Upper-division and graduate students. —A. Woodiwiss, Wheaton College (IL)

Heinz, Donald. Christmas: festival of Incarnation. Fortress, 2010. 274p ISBN 9780800697334, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2011

Do readers need another book about Christmas? Heinz (California State Univ., Chico) believes so, and has written an interesting, informative book about the historical development of this Christmas festival and its larger cultural impact on Western society. Though the framework of this book is essentially historical, Heinz also employs insights from theology, art, music, and cultural criticism to examine his subject from a multidisciplinary standpoint. One major interpretive key for the author is the idea of Christmas as a “theater of incarnation” (theological language for the idea of God taking on human form), and how the festival itself becomes a series of theatrical metaphors for this concept. Christmas is, in this sense, a staged reenactment of the original event, and takes on sacramental overtones in the world of Christian piety. As Christmas moved out into the now more secularized Western world, it lost many of it previous associations, but developed further cultural significances of its own. Ultimately, Heinz suggests that “Christmas becomes the uneasy record of how God and religion and humans are faring in the modern world.” Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above; general readers. —M. A. Granquist, Luther Seminary

Parker, David. Christmas and Charles Dickens. AMS Press, 2006. 355p ISBN 0404644643, $79.50.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2006

Parker disputes the often-quoted belief that Dickens “invented” Christmas or at the very least resuscitated it as it was dying. Offering a detailed examination of the history of Christmas in England from 598 to 1842, the author amply demonstrates that the festival was widely observed by a large segment of the population, that it was popular but unfashionable, and that Dickens made it fashionable again—especially with the publication of A Christmas Carol (1843). Parker analyzes all of Dickens’s writings about Christmas, starting with the 1835 essay “Christmas Festivities,” and traces Dickens’s experimentation with the techniques and themes (e.g., memory and ghosts) that he would later use in A Christmas Carol. Noteworthy is Parker’s examination of the way Dickens’s dealing with Christmas changed Dickens himself. Destined to become the definitive study of Dickens and Christmas, this meticulously researched book is a must for anyone interested in Dickens or in British history and culture. For everyone else it provides entertaining and informative reading. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers; all levels. —J. D. Vann, University of North Texas

Plaut, Joshua Eli. A kosher Christmas: ‘tis the season to be Jewish. Rutgers, 2012. 207p ISBN 9780813553795, $68.00; ISBN 9780813553801 pbk, $22.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2013

This engaging cultural history of Jewish response to Christmas in the US shows the centuries-long dialogue about the role of Jews as a minority within a dominant society. The book is transnational in its consideration of different influences from central and east European traditions in the 19th century. The former regularly included use of Christmas trees, while the latter disdained the practice. From this dialogue arose a movement to elevate Hanukkah to a parallel holiday and in the process change its features. Plaut (rabbi) traces the development of other well-known practices by US Jews in response to Christmas, such as eating Chinese food, volunteering for charitable service, and creating a Jewish holiday song. The author closes with observations on the recent emergence of hybridized celebrations, especially in light of mixed Jewish-Christian families. Providing more than a Jewish cultural history, Plaut opens discussion on the way that the US Jewish response to Christmas, which he calls culturally unique, paved the way for the identity politics of other minorities to be expressed in the all-important December holiday season. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. —S. J. Bronner, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg Campus

Rathey, Markus. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas oratorio: music, theology, culture. Oxford, 2016. 414p bibl index ISBN 9780190275259, $65.00; ISBN 9780190275266 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2017

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium) has long been one of his best-loved works. Composed in 1734 for use in the Lutheran liturgy for Christmas, it remains a classical concert staple in many countries during the Christmas season. Numerous excellent recordings and editions are readily available, and much significant research has been devoted to it. Thus, it is surprising that this book is the first substantial English-language monograph about the work. A noted Bach scholar, Rathey (Yale) presents a masterful holistic study that includes both in-depth musical analyses and in-depth investigations of the environment in which the oratorio was created. Rathey carefully explains Bach’s considerable use of the parody technique, in which he reworked music he had written for earlier cantatas. Offering a detailed study of many contemporaneous writings about the role of Christmas in the Lutheran theology and culture of Bach’s world, the book provides crucial understanding of Bach’s musical and spiritual interpretations of the text. This important study is a must for students of music and will also be helpful for the study of German theological and cultural history. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —D. Arnold, University of North Texas

Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America: a history. Oxford, 1995. 219p ISBN 0195093003, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 1996

Restad’s splendid social history of America’s premier religious and secular holiday makes a signal contribution to the scholarship of American culture. As Restad (history, Univ. of Texas-Austin) documents, Christmas in the US evolved from Colonial celebrations, often raucous and profane, over the course of the 19th century to its current place in the national imagination. A major milestone was the genesis of the modern Santa Claus in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 epic “The Night Before Christmas,” enhanced by Thomas Nast’s creation of Santa’s graphic image in his Harper’s Weekly Christmas cartoons. Other important contributions to the development of the American observance of Christmas were the German innovation of the decorated tree, the introduction of the Christmas card, and the passion for gift-giving. Meticulously researched and deftly written, Restad’s study merits a place on the shelves of every academic and public library. Summing Up: All levels. —R. A. Fischer, University of Minnesota—Duluth

Trexler, Richard C. The journey of the Magi: meanings in history of a Christian story. Princeton, 1997. 277p ISBN 0-691-01126-5, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 1997

Trexler (history, SUNY, Binghamton) narrates the fascinating account of how the story, symbol, and ritual of the Magi were used for different social, political, and spiritual purposes throughout Christian history. The author’s thesis is that the Magi story functioned as a significant means of constructing, reinforcing, and challenging social and political order. His detailed and carefully researched account assumes that there is an interrelationship between the way this story was understood and the particular social context of that interpretation. Using textual sources, plays, theatrical presentation, liturgical forms, and artistic presentations, Trexler traces how the story was used to legitimate various forms of power and social structures, the civilizing of the world outside Europe, the search for El Dorado and Wisdom of the East, and the commercial enterprise associated with modern forms of celebrating Christmas. Although the book focuses on the story of the Magi, the contextual analyses form an insightful treatment of the dynamics of Christian societies in their various historical manifestations. The book is quite readable, but it is addressed more to scholars in the field than to novices. Fifty-four illustrations; 58 pages of notes, many expository; seven-page index. An important book for libraries with holdings in history of Christianity and Christian symbols. Summing Up: Graduate; faculty. —R. L. Massanari, Alma College