The Origins of Christmas packs a lot of interesting information into a small book as it surveys the process by which the event of Jesus' birth became the feast of Christ's nativity. Joseph Kelly, chair of the theology department at John Carroll University, writing in an easy, accessible style, covers the first six centuries of Christmas, "from not even existing to possibly starting as a Gnostic feast to oppose Egyptian paganism to being a counter to the feast of the Unconquered Sun to becoming involved in Christology and Mariology to creating the legends of the Magi to becoming a regular part of Christian life."
He organizes his work in five chapters, beginning with the question of why the earliest Christians did not seem very interested in the birth of Jesus and then moving to the theological motivation for composing the infancy narratives. Both Matthew and Luke wanted to make clear that Jesus had always been the Son of God—something that Mark's account of Jesus' baptism seemed to cast doubt on—and used their accounts, with their "fulfillment of prophecies, signs in the sky, and angelic annunciations," to make their case. As Kelly points out, "had the two evangelists not done such Christology, we would never have had Christmas." This remark is typical of the approach of this book. Not only does Kelly offer a great deal of information about sources, texts, and popular traditions, but he also shows how these elements contributed to the development of Christology. In other words, this little book is not simply about Christmas; it is also about a key moment in the life of the Church. By choosing to focus on the traditions of Christmas, Kelly is conducting a kind of Christology minilab, if I may use that expression. He models how to read and think about the texts' connection to the growing understanding in the early Church of who Christ is.
His chapter on the canonical gospels also displays his ability to connect with his readers. As he begins his discussion of Matthew's gospel, for instance, he says: "when we turn to his account of Jesus' birth, we find, to our disappointment, a boring genealogy of 'so and so begat so and so' from Abraham...to Jesus." Having acknowledged what must be the experience of almost everyone who has ever opened the gospel of Matthew (St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and Ray Brown to the contrary notwithstanding) he goes on to show us how to move beyond our boredom into an understanding of the relationship between the New Testament text and its Old Testament roots. That type of sympathetic encouragement, appearing from time to time, creates a certain confidence between the author and his readers.
After the canonical gospels, he moves into territory that seems unfamiliar at first (the Gospel of Thomas and the Protoevangelion of James not being household words). It rapidly becomes quite familiar, however, as we recognize many of the elements of what he calls "the Christmas Story." Kelly helps us to become genuinely familiar with these ancient texts by describing their contents as well as their role in the development of the story. He remarks that although the apocryphal writers' willingness to add to the gospel accounts may seem foreign to us, we should remember that improving on the story did not end sometime in the Middle Ages. Pointing to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, "The Little Drummer Boy," and even to those "tasteless" images of Santa kneeling at the crib, Kelly wisecracks, "that crib must have been getting awfully crowded." Such low key humor surfaces occasionally and points to another of his strengths as a writer: he doesn't talk down to his readers, but rather makes common cause with them.
Chapter Three explores the issue of how Christmas came to be on December 25. I must confess that before I read this book, I had been content to say that this date represented the baptism of Saturnalia and to leave it at that. Now, after a tour of the entire Mediterranean world with Kelly, I know that in fact the Christianizing of Saturnalia was only one of the pieces in a complex but fascinating puzzle. The fourth chapter, focusing its attention on "Jesus, Mary, the Magi, and an Obscure Asian Bishop," offers a "sketch" of Christology as the way to understand this material. Its clarity and simplicity make it ideal for students, whether undergraduates or adults in a parish course. His discussion of the Magi is particularly interesting, taking them from their first cameo appearance in Matthew as a group of itinerant astrologers to their development into anonymous kings and then finally to their becoming three kings with personal names. In the last chapter he explores the popular acceptance of the feast by looking at the art and music that it inspired.
One of the many pleasures this book has to offer is the chance to recognize familiar faces—whether those of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar or those of the ox and the ass—and to learn more about where they come from and why they are now so much a part of our understanding of Christmas. It shows the power of a good story, a story that Kelly calls "a delight to research and tell." That delight, so evident throughout his book, makes it a pleasure to read.