The Reason for the Holiday Season? Dark, Cold, Punishing Weather

Dec 24, 2015

"Remember the reason for the season" is an oft-repeated platitude, intended to rebuke the commercialization of Christmas and bring to the forefront thoughts of Jesus in a manger. But Bruce Forbes, professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City and author of Christmas: A Candid History, says the reason for the season is more complicated, and far older than Jesus' birth.

"For the moment forget all about the baby Jesus and the manger, think about the winter and what that's like. We know if we're living in the Northern part of the Northern hemisphere, it's cold and it's dark. Doesn't it make sense that human beings living in the Northern hemisphere would do something to try to survive winter? I've got a great idea for that, let's have a big blowout winter party."

Forbes says Christmas, like most holidays, is more like a three-tiered cake: the first layer are the traditions of hundreds of years ago, the second layer is religious meaning, and the third is the modern spin of the past few decades. 

In the case of Christmas, many of the classic trappings we associate with the holiday -- lights, warmth, evergreens -- were originally borne out of the cold and dark of the season.

"It'd be a festival of lights to push back the darkness with candles and burning logs. It would probably have evergreens: they look like they're still alive when everything else has died. It would probably even feature greenery that bears fruit in the middle of winter, like holly or mistletoe. You'd get together with other people so you're not isolated by winter."

In this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Forbes about the origins of our Christmas traditions. Janet Clair Dennis, director of interpretation at Living History Farms, also joins the program.