The Mystery of Christmas Revealed! Or why a home-centered holiday celebrates a homeless family.

Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained

By Michael P. Foley (2022, Regnery History) 306 pages including index, bibliography, and notes.

 

I’ll be home for Christmas

You can count on me. . .

I’ll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams.

 

—Kim Gannon, Walter Kent, and Buck Ram, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” 1943

 

 

Chapter nine of Michael P. Foley’s Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe offers a good overview of some of the most famous religious carols and popular songs associated with Christmas. It is amusing to learn that James Lord Pierpont, who wrote “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 and republished it two years later as “Jingle Bells,” did not become rich from what has to be one of the most popular songs in the English language. Learning that Pierpont was a Southern sympathizer who wrote rah-rah songs for the Confederacy made me wonder why the movement to cancel “Jingle Bells” has not picked up more steam than it has, the Lost Cause being more lost than found these days in our most influential circles. (154-157) “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” did make a fortune for fiction writer Robert L. May, who created the character and story in 1939. Johnny Marks created the song based on May’s story that Gene Autry turned into a monster hit in 1949. According to Foley, Uncle Sam, that is, federal taxes, took most of Marks’s wealth. (167-168) Like Helen Bannerman with Little Black Sambo, May wrote sequels to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” but could never duplicate his initial success. I wonder if there might be a movement afoot to cancel this song as it turns on Rudolph being made fun of by other reindeer for a defect, if one wants to call it that, that was not of his making. Rudolph, in effect, is the victim of discrimination, prejudice, and microaggressions for simply being who he is. And the only way he can be accepted is by making himself useful in an emergency, proving himself worthy to the other reindeer, a sort of Sidney Poitier-esque way of saying, “I’m good despite my defect.” As a kid, I could identify with Rudolph but did not necessarily like the fact that I could or had to. But in what world do people have perfect art? The imperfect can teach you a lot and I sure learned a lot from singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The only Christmas song more popular than “Rudolph” is Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” There were Black folks I knew growing up who thought that song should be canceled. That might be growing apace too. Christmas may be more threatened than we know.

It is amusing to learn that singer Mel Tormé and composing partner Robert Wells wrote “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” during an unrelenting heatwave in July 1945 when Wells wrote the initial lyrics trying to think cool thoughts to combat the heat. After finishing the tune, the first person they took it to was singer/pianist Nat “King” Cole who instantly seized the song as his own. (140-141) It is a little surprising that Tormé himself, no slouch as a singer, did not want to introduce the song himself. (Of course, he recorded a version of it, but his signature 1992 interpretation of a Christmas carol is a swinging “Good King Wenceslas.”) Many have sung “The Christmas Song” since 1945 but Cole’s version is the most memorable and the most played.

The chapter on songs is nifty but there are two songs I wish Foley had said something about: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” composed in 1943 by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent, and Buck Ram, which Bing Crosby made a hit. It was written from the point of view of a serviceman overseas during the war and I have thought it a heartbreaking song: the yearning for family happiness, the idealized memory of it, and the projection of this happiness when one feels homeless. It is a song about homesickness, which always makes you sentimental and full of heartbreak. Foley does not talk about how Christmas does that to you and can truly depress a person. He captures a bit of this in quoting G.K. Chesterton, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” (195) But what is home? What does it mean to be without one? And in what ways can a person be without a home? I wish Foley had explored this more, and how Christmas is both good and bad in its emphasis on being home.

It is amusing to learn that singer Mel Tormé and composing partner Robert Wells wrote “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” during an unrelenting heatwave in July 1945 when Wells wrote the initial lyrics trying to think cool thoughts to combat the heat.

Foley also does not mention one of my favorite Christmas songs, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz,” composed in the summer of 1954 because their patron, Frank Sinatra, wanted a Christmas song to record. What composers in their right minds want to write a Christmas song after Irving Berlin has done “White Christmas”? That is what Styne and Cahn thought. They also wrote “Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let It Snow!” (written during that same 1945 heat wave that produced “The Christmas Song”) but that is a winter song more than a Christmas song. Foley does have a paragraph noting the number of Jews, like Berlin, Styne, and Cahn, who wrote famous Christmas songs. I wish he had said a bit more about that too.

There are three aspects to consider about Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe: first, it is a book reminding its reader that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and it takes a decidedly Catholic point of view. (Foley is a Catholic theologian, so such a take is hardly surprising.) Second, the book is published by Regnery, a conservative publishing house, so the book is meant to convey something like a conservative view of Christmas. Let us say it is written in defense of Christmas as both a cultural and religious moment in western societies, a holiday whose history and values still matter and still define the United States and Europe in important ways. This defense, of course, is not agreeable to all people, surprisingly to some to whom it should be. Third, the book does not deplore the commercialization of the holiday or its secularization. It is the only Christian holiday, a holy day, that greatly impacts the lives of non-Christian people. Nearly everyone in the world has heard of it and nearly everyone knows it has something to do with the birth of a special child whose parents need divine intervention to understand it all. In this regard, I have always felt that faithful Christians have an obligation, a responsibility to stay true to the holiday, to the season, out of respect not only to themselves but to the non-Christians and non-believers who are affected by it or who must live with it. I was relieved that the book is not a lament about the commercial Christmas, nor a history of it. As Foley writes at the end: “After all, Christmas itself is a gift. It has been given to you. Receive it joyfully.” (268)

Foley’s project is not new. There have been several books written about Christmas that cover the same ground: the origins of Christmas, the Epiphany, the 12 days of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, and the like; why there are three Catholic masses at Christmas—midnight, dawn, and later in the morning; the origin of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus; why Christmas is celebrated on the date that it is; why the Puritans were hostile toward the holiday and how they tried to abolish it; how Washington Irving, Queen Victoria, and Charles Dickens invented the modern Christmas; how Christmas was not always a wholesome holiday but had as much mischief and as many misdeeds as early Halloween and as much licentiousness as the Saturnalia. (There was a time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the number of births significantly increased nine months after December.)

This book is not a history of Christmas but rather a series of chapters broken into vignettes, anecdotes, and historical tidbits about the holiday, ranging from food and drink associated with Christmas (from eggnog and wassail to fruitcake and candy canes) to St. Nicholas’s partners, (Black Peter, Cert, Hans Trapp), and other saints who also were gift-givers. All of this is written in a highly accessible way that will surely charm or at least entertain a reader in the same way that a book like One Hundred Amazing Facts About, well, whatever might be a pleasant diversion, even as the book tries to remind the faithful that Christmas is no mere diversion, but about God’s engagement with the world or God’s willingness to engage human creation, which is worth taking seriously even for those who do not take this particular story seriously or do not take belief in God seriously. We do take home and homelessness seriously and Christmas at its simplest is a story about that. We are “home alone” in this world and having a God who thinks humans are worth something is worth, well, what precisely is it worth?

I was relieved that the book is not a lament about the commercial Christmas, nor a history of it. As Foley writes at the end: “After all, Christmas itself is a gift. It has been given to you. Receive it joyfully.”

When Foley wrote about Christmas pageants, I remember playing one of the shepherds in a Christmas play at my church. All the children had roles but I was relegated to a non-speaking part, a walk-on. I was probably about six years old when I had my stage debut. We three boys who played the shepherds wore toga-like costumes bunched about our middles with a sash. We were also given staffs. For some reason, I was completely mystified by the staff and did not understand what I should do with it, although my Sunday School teacher had told me simply to hold it in my hand as I walked. Surely, I should do something more than that. Finally, just as we were about to march across the stage and join the children playing Joseph and Mary and the oxen and the donkey (the Christ babe was just a doll), I conceived that I would use the staff as a crutch. The other two boys simply walked across the stage and carried their staffs in their hands as useless props as they were told, but, ahh, mine would serve a dramatic purpose. Leaning heavily on the staff, I hopped across the stage as if I were lame or missing a leg. I did this slowly for effect. No comedian, however great, ever moved an audience to such riotous laughter as I did. The adults were nearly rolling out of their chairs. So were the children. The problem was that I was not intending to be funny. I thought I was being dramatic and moving. I was completely confused by the laughter. “Who and what are they laughing at?” I thought as I hobbled to my mark. Even the other shepherds and Joseph and Mary giggled. When I finally realized that I was the cause of this merriment, I was deeply embarrassed and left the stage. I wanted to cry because I felt like a fool. My Sunday School teacher tried to soothe me. The extra candy she gave me made me feel a little better. It was my first and last time on a stage in a play. Christmas did me one favor: it convinced me I was no actor.

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