Cards, Carols & Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity.
Author: Rex A. E. Hunt. Morning Star Publishing, 2013.
Review by Dr. Val Webb
A book with such a title, written by a clergyperson, would suggest that the author is about to bemoan the overtaking of the religious story by secularism and commercialism - the "put Christ back into Christmas" cry. But Rex Hunt is no Christmas Grinch or self-righteous puritan. Rather, he is an Australian who loves the whole season for its joy, community expressions, family reunions, gift-giving, Carols by Candlelight, laughter and Christmas cards.
In fact, reading this book, packed tight with historical information and cultural analysis, gave me a warm glow and a re-energized expectancy for the season about to be upon us. Hunt invites us to absorb and participate in all the wonder and togetherness expressed through Christmas traditions in Australia, whether or not one embraces the religious story within it all. Hunt says:
"Christmas is a multi-layered 'festival', weaving together religion, media and popular culture ... It customs bring to the surface a kind of public 'everyday secular' spirituality that is beyond the power of Christianity or the institutional church to define or control. As such Christmas is 'the most human and lovable' and easily the most popular festival of the year involving nearly all of the population". (203)
Hunt has gathered together an incredible amount of information about the celebration of Christmas through the ages, with chapters on its historical progress across the world; its unique Australian shape including "Carols by Candlelight" as folk rituals and "eucalyptus" adaptations of snow-covered pine trees; Christmas card greetings; carols as seasonal carnival songs; elaborate media involvement in celebrations; gift-giving; food and Father Christmas. Not a plum pudding or tree ornament is left unturned in this expansive discussion. Although extremely readable in style, this is no shallow read in terms of detail and content. Through it all, Hunt's voice is one of celebration and awe at the trajectory of this celebration from pre-Christian seasonal origins through its adoption and adaptation by Christianity and up to today -- a detailed timeline is included. The overriding theme is Hunt's openness to fully embrace this evolution.
But what about the "real" story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus? In the second part of the sub-title, "progressive Christianity", Hunt reminds us that the birth story of Jesus is also part of the evolution of this season, not its beginning. The birth story is not recorded in Paul's writing, the earliest Christian recording, nor in Mark's Gospel, the earliest Gospel. It evolved in Christian tradition, appearing only in the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke and with differences in the accounts. The "Feast of the Nativity of our Lord" did not make the church calendar until the fourth century, so only in time did the emerging church "take over" this life-affirming folk festival to make it theirs, thus becoming another part of the festival's evolving history (24-25). And, as Hunt points out, "...it wasn't until the mid 1800's that much of what we would identify as 'Christmas' was really celebrated", brought about by technology, a commercial postal system, songs, Victorian Christmas illustrations and a tale from Dickens (221).
Hunt does not want the church to give up on the celebrations of Christmas. "Instead, "the church should seek to offer a more generous view, and tap into the events and grace that surround this occasion within our culture ... Let this invented festival be seen for what it is: a weaving of religion and popular culture, with possibilities for the telling of the stories of God. And a time when the church can build bridges to that 51% of the Australian society who have beliefs wider than those handed down by the church". (224)
Thank you, Rex Hunt, for so delightfully reminding us that Christmas is for everyone, not just for those who call themselves Christian. It is a time in which... (i) we celebrate ourselves, sometimes in spite of something else happening, (ii) provides a contrast from 'everyday life', and (iii) enables us to affirm all of life by saying 'yes' to a part of life. (139)
Buy a copy of this book and give it to someone for Christmas so they too can have their vision enlarged.