It's that time of year:
Mariah Carey is blasting in all the drugstores, and Netflix is pumping out a whole new slew of lightly plotted wintertime romance films. Perhaps you're thrilled to be buying presents for your loved ones and bringing a literal tree into your living room. Maybe you're overwhelmed by the music and the capitalism and all the pressure to be merry. Either way, you're probably wondering... how did we get here? How did our modern day melange of evergreen plants, candles, turkey, religion, elves, drinking, presents, dreidels, and so forth come to be? If you're curious about the truth behind all our weird-but-beloved holiday traditions, then here are a few books that have some of the answer for you.
Historically, it seems like most humans who live in places where it gets cold and dark for part of the year come to a similar conclusion: Let's have a party to cheer things up (and also let's eat a lot and drink a lot so we can fatten up and survive the winter). But how does that impulse translate into cookies and wreaths and strange men sneaking down the chimney? Check out these nonfiction books to find out:
'How to Spell Chanukah: and other holiday dilemmas' edited by Emily Franklin
No matter how you spell Chanukah (or Hanukkah), you'll be able to enjoy this funny, informative collection of essays as eighteen writers celebrate the festival of lights. These essays and memoirs cover everything from the history of the holiday to its confluence with Christmas to personal family traditions surrounding menorahs, latkes, dreidels and more.
Click here to buy.
'The Battle for Christmas' by Stephen Nissenbaum
You've probably heard a newscaster/uncle shouting about the vaguely defined "War on Christmas" at some point in your life. But did you know that there actually
was sort of a war on Christmas at one point? The Battle for Christmas follows the holiday from its carnival origins to its outlaw status in early America to its modern day life as a season of goodwill and excessive consumerism. Click here to buy.
'Dickens and Christmas' by Lucinda Hawksley
Dickens was a huge influence on making Christmas cool again in Victorian England, and now the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens himself has written a book about it.
Dickens and Christmas takes a look at what Christmas would have been like for little Charlie growing up, and at the impact his multiple Christmas novellas had on the culture of celebration as a whole. Click here to buy.
'The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits' by Les Standiford
Yes, Dickens was
so influential on the holidays that he gets a second book. The Man Who Invented Christmas focuses specifically on the impact of A Christmas Carol, though, since that one little novella alone caused Christmas fever to sweep through England and it's just kind of... gotten more intense and global ever since. Click here to buy.
'Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays: Hanukkah, Tu b'shevat, Purim' by Paul Steinberg
Hanukkah may get all the publicity (since it tends to get swept along by the unyielding tide of Christmas), but it's
not the only Jewish holiday celebrated in the winter. This book gives the fascinating history of Hanukkah along with Tu b'shevat and Purim, filled with stories, essays, poems, and anecdotes about celebrate each wintry holiday. Click here to buy.
'Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice' by Susan Pesznecker
So... what exactly is a yulelog and how can one incorporate more divination into the winter holidays?
Yule gives the history of the Wicca celebration of Midwinter, combining ancient rituals with modern-day crafts, recipes, spells, and pretty much everything you need to host your own Yule-time celebration of light and warmth. Click here to buy.
'Christmas: A Candid History' by Bruce David Forbes
If you're looking for a fun, comprehensive history of Christmas, and how Coca-Cola and President Franklin Roosevelt helped change the holiday forever, then this is the book for you.
Christmas: A Candid History follows Christmas from its pre-Christian beginnings through the spread of Christianity through Europe, and then through the 20th Century creation of the all-American capitalist holiday that we know and love and sometimes resent today. Click here to buy.
'Santa Claus: A Biography' by Gerry Bowler
It's hardly Christmas without Santa Claus. But how did a historical bishop from Asia Minor become the jolly old man who lives at the North Pole with elves and reindeer and an ethics-based toy distribution business?
Santa Claus: A Biography takes a look at the legend of Santa Claus (and similar figures all over the world), and how he came to be the red-coated, beard-having fellow of our modern day folklore. Click here to buy.
'Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture' by Maulana Karenga
Kwanzaa is one of the youngest winter holidays, so you can read a book on the history of Kwanzaa written by Maulana Karenga,
the literal creator of Kwanzaa. Sources don't get much more primary than this. Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture explains the origins of the holiday, its basis in African tradition, and ways to celebrate the seven principles of Kwanzaa during the celebration itself and every day of the year. Click here to buy.
'The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil' by Al Ridenour
Tales of the krampus have weirdly come back into vogue as a darker alternative to all that cutesy, child-friendly Christmas media. But... why is there a Christmas demon in German folklore in the first place? Where did he come from? And why does one of the cheeriest holidays have such a sinister past?
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas is a delightfully creepy, informative read for anyone interested in the history of the Christmas devil. Click here to buy.