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Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich

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Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich

Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich

How much do you know about Christmas? Do you know why holly is traditionally used? Do you know what “first footing” is? Do you know what the ancient Roman festival of Kalends has to do with Christmas and it's influence on what we do today? Most Americans have had some connection with Christmas celebrations; most have probably been celebrating Christmas in some form all their lives. That does not mean, however, that people know much about the symbols, traditions or origins of what they do.


Title: Encyclopedia of Christmas
Author: Tanya Gulevich
Publisher: Omnigraphics
ISBN: 0780803876

• Easy to read, handy source on everything about Christmas - past and present
• 50 full-page black-and-white illustrations
• Extensive information about customs and celebrations around the world

• Some duplication which may not be necessary
Entries on modern media (like “It’s a Wonderful Life”) would be appropriate

• Over 200 entries on Christmas customs, traditions and history
• Christmas Bibliography, Christmas Organizations, and Christmas Web Sites
• Indexed by Subject, Geographic Location and Ethnic Group

Book Review

Fortunately, there is one source you can turn to in order to learn more: the Encyclopedia of Christmas by Tanya Gulevich. This single volume provides almost 200 entries, all arranged alphabetically like a dictionary. It covers issues such as myths, customs, religious rituals, symbols, related events, legends, and aspects of Christmas celebrations specific to various countries and groups around the world.

Articles range in length from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand words; each includes a list of books where you can find more details. Some even give a web site for more information.

One aspect of Christmas which can make some of the traditions difficult to fathom is its ancient origins - even just the Christian features of this holiday go back as far as two millennia, and the pagan features can be even older. Gulevich takes extra care to address those ancient customs, for example the Roman celebration of Kalends:

    The Romans celebrated Kalends by decorating their homes and temples with lights and greenery. They exchanged gifts with one another as well. ...Later the Romans added cakes and honey (symbolizing a “sweet” new year) and coins (symbolizing wealth) to the roster of traditional new year gifts.

Entries like this might prove distressing for some because they demonstrate just how much even our modern Christmas still owes to paganism rather than Christianity. There are Christians who recognize this and either don’t mind or have chosen to eschew Christmas entirely, but there are many who hold on to the belief that Christmas is entirely Christian in nature - even though the very date itself came from the pagans:

    In spite of their opposition to the cult [of Mithras], in the middle of the fourth century Christian authorities selected December 25 as the day on which to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Scholars believe that they did so largely in order to divert people away from competing, pagan celebrations held on or around that date, such as the Birth of the Invincible Sun, Saturnalia and Kalends.

Gulevich doesn’t simply give us a dry accounting of religious history, however. For example, many Americans are familiar with eggnog, but just how many are familiar with the “Eggnog Riot” at the West Point Military Academy in 1826?

    Designated cadets snuck the contraband ingredients past the sentries. On Christmas Eve they blackened the windows in their barracks, posted guards to warn of the approach of officers, and began the festivities. Officials somehow stumbled upon the scene at 4:30 a.m. The encounter between the drunken students and the outraged officers resulted in a bloody melee that left one cadet charged with attempted murder. The so-called “Eggnog Riot” eventually led to the voluntary resignation of six cadets and the court martial of nineteen of their fellows. Eleven of these were dismissed from the academy.
Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich

Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich

    Since seventy young men took part in the escapade, one might conclude that most got off easy. Many of these cadets hailed from prominent American families. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, was one of them.

Now that’s the sort of Christmas story of the “old days” you don’t hear about very often! Gulevich even gives a traditional recipe for eggnog at the end of this entry, if you are brave enough to give it a whirl.

All of this goes to show just how much has shaped the celebrations which constitute the modern Christmas season. Some have remained unaltered, some have been lost entirely, some are celebrated today by only a few, and some have been so changed that they might be unrecognizable to people from past centuries. There are also quite few customs and traditions celebrated in other countries and which Americans know little or nothing about.

Gulevich presents this tapestry of customs and traditions in a single, easy to read source which is perfect for any public library, but I think that quite a few people would like to have it at home as well. If you want to learn more about Christmas without having to purchase your own library of reference works, this is the book for you.

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