In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Nathaniel Morehouse
In the fall of 2016 I was asked at the last minute to fill in for a professor who was retiring early to teach what had become his signature class: The History of Christmas. Whenever I told friends and family I was met with a soft chuckle (perhaps thinking about notions of how the Humanities had lost any relevance if they were offing courses like this) and an incredulous question wondering how I was going to fill a whole semester with that. And to be honest at first I wasn’t too sure I could. Ultimately I described the course in the syllabus thus:
In American society Christmas is arguably the largest holiday of the year. One does not have to be Christian to feel the overwhelming focus of the 25th of December. Indeed it would be impossible to miss this day considering its monopoly of popular culture from the end of October through the end of December. Yet, of course, Christmas has not always been such a cultural powerhouse, especially as it is not the most important holiday in the Christian calendar, and was not even celebrated for hundreds of years after the birth of Jesus. This course will provide an overview of the development of Christmas; tracing its humble beginnings primarily from the second (NB “fourth” would have been more accurate) through the sixth centuries, and then examine the development of the modern iteration of Christmas as it expanded in the nineteenth century. (Other material cut for brevity)
At the beginning I expected the topic to be a lens through which one could discuss the general development of Christianity and Christian theology relative to the incarnation of Jesus, with some fun tangents about trees and Santa Claus thrown in at the end. This was, indeed, how I started the semester: looking at New Testament portrayals of the nativity of Jesus, Pauline arguments about the incarnation etc., then shifting to the developments of the Church (and why it is inaccurate to use it in the singular as I just did) through the following centuries. This then segued into the development of the date of Christmas, a discussion of Saturnalia, the celebration of the Birthday of Sol Invictus, and Yule. After exploring the development of Christmas in Europe we would look at the effect of the Reformation and Industrialization.
Most of the books that I have looked at which deal with the history of Christmas take roughly this approach (see for example Joseph Kelly’s The Origins of Christmas and The Feast of Christmas, Bruce David Forbes’ Christmas: A Candid History, and Penne L. Restad’s Christmas in America: A History). This approach however doesn’t necessarily touch explicitly on the way in which a course like this one allows us to examine the construction of society, as I observed as the semester progressed.
Ultimately the thing that I liked the best about this course was the way in which it allowed us to take one of the most well-known features of the American Calendar and used it not only as a lens for the development of Christianity (which almost became an afterthought by the time we reached the 19th century and the industrial revolution – which had a much stronger effect on the development of the modern notion of Christmas than overt Christian theology) but for the fundamental structures that affect our lives. While issues of consumerism, display, hegemony, and memory were effective, I found our discussion on the power dynamics associated with the calendar to be the most productive.
I asked students to develop alternative ways of measuring time, giving them the chance to break down perhaps one of the most elementary ways in which we interact with the world. Inevitably the majority of these reflected our location in North East Ohio or their own particular preferences and interests. This worked well with a reading I assigned from Keith A. Mayes book Kwanza: Black Power and the Making of the African American Holiday Tradition, which draws attention to the power dynamics implicit in the creation of a calendar and the assigning of Holidays within it.
When I teach this course next fall I will begin with Mayes book to provide the framework of power and control which are at work with any day of celebration but most especially with the calendrical powerhouse that is Christmas.
Nathaniel Morehouse received his MA in Religious Studies from New York University and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Manitoba with a focus on early Christianity. He currently lives in Cleveland Heights and teaches in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. His first book, Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity, and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine, was published with Equinox Press in 2016.