NEWS FEATURE: Encyclopedia Explores the Sacred and the Silly of Christmas Season

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Despite researching Christmas for more than 10 years, Gerry Bowler says he never grew sick of the world’s dominant holiday.

Bowler, the author of the new “World Encyclopedia of Christmas,” also says he was forever changed by learning everything anyone ever wanted to know about Christmas _ from the recipe for mulled glogg to “I Saw Three Ships,” from “Beavis and Butthead Do Christmas” to solemn midnight Masses marking the birth of Jesus.

“My love of Christmas really deepened during the process. I became less Protestant,” said Bowler, a professor of history and culture at the University of Manitoba, as he described putting together his book for the publisher McClelland & Stewart. He kept finding more layers of meaning in the holiday, which is marked in almost every country on Earth.

By becoming “less Protestant,” Bowler said he means he moved beyond the tut-tutting Puritanism of his own North American evangelical Protestantism. That perspective, he said, tends to see Christmas as a one-shot opportunity to hunker down with the nuclear family and moan about the crassness of it all.

Bowler, a 51-year-old father of three girls who attends the nondenominational Church of the Way in Winnipeg, Manitoba, came to envy how Christmas in many parts of the world remains a mind-altering, sacred season lasting up to two months _ a time for community, charity and discipline, as well as revelry, symbolic danger, ribald humor and mysticism.

Christmas is when Eastern Christians enter 40-day fasts and many Western Christians give time and money to the poor. But Bowler believes it’s also when Christians, not to mention hundreds of millions of secular observers of Christmas, should feel free to cut loose and revel in life.

Bowler came to the conclusion that Europeans and Latin Americans do Christmas in the most alluring ways, finding in it many different meanings.

Southern France, for example, has its famous Christmas festival of “The Thirteen Desserts.” On Nov. 30, some Germans begin a lengthy Christmas season by divining future spouses. And Mexicans have the “Night of the Radishes” on Dec. 23, when they carve giant radishes into shapes from the Nativity story.

At the same time, Bowler noted Canada and the United States have created some of their own strange and powerful traditions, particularly in the 19th century, when the “dark and Dionysian side of Christmas got sweetened and it became more of a children’s festival.”

In more than 1,000 playful, provocative, detailed articles, the illustrated, 257-page book tells how people in different times and places culled diverse meanings from Christmas:

_ The Knickerbockers, a New York writers’ group led by Washington Irving in the early 1800s, virtually invented the Santa Claus figure we know in North America, partly as an anti-British tactic. Instead of Santa being a church bishop, they made him into a chimney-sliding “nondenominational elf, one who was seized on by Yankee merchants as the frontman for their commercial exploitation of Christmas.” The Knickerbockers also transformed Christmas from a rowdy communal celebration into a private, child-centered event.

_ The “most bitter Christmas carol” Bowler found was France’s “Noel Des Enfants.” Written during the First World War, it urges the Christ child to avoid comforting German children.

_ In Canada’s Maritime provinces, mummers still go door-to-door dressed in masks and outlandish costumes, drinks at the ready. Philadelphia continues to have an annual mummers’ parade, with 10,000 participants. In Quebec, people visit neighbors to collect money and food for charity. At each door they menacingly pronounce, “La Guignolee,” which suggests they’re ready to roast the feet of the eldest daughter unless they get a donation.

“It was astonishing,” Bowler said, to find out how closely beatings are connected to Christmas. In 1821, for example, in a U.S. book, “Children’s Friend,” Santa Claus encouraged parents to beat their children if they lied or swore.

In Japan, where there are few Christians, Dec. 24 is simply known as “Eve,” he said. It is the night for couples to rent hotel rooms for sensual pleasures.

Bowler’s list of weird and wonderful Christmas tie-ins and observances seems endless. As a result, he feels safe making only two generalizations about Christmas:

_ Virtually everyone sees it as a holiday requiring some sort of celebration.

_ It is viewed as a time for miracles.

“While society becomes increasingly secular and science ever more intrusive,” the “World Encyclopedia of Christmas” says, “Christmas remains the only time of the year when miracles are considered possible, if not inevitable.”


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