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Ghosts of Christmas Past


Over the years, I've witnessed many an argument over whether the original intention of Christmas—celebrating the birth of Christ—has been perverted. So rather than immediately revisiting any of my favorite fictional holiday pals—Ralphie Parker, Charlie Brown, Clark Griswold, George Bailey—this year, it seemed more meaningful to first watch a historical take on the background and/or the "meaning" of America's favorite holiday—the History Channel's special entitled Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas.

Not to be confused with Unwrapped, the Food Network's behind-the-scenes food processing program, Christmas Unwrapped is narrated by Harry Smith (CBS' Early Show, A&E's Biography), and guides viewers through the evolution of December 25.

This documentary is not for the closed-minded, although it hardly feels controversial. If anything, as Smith concludes, knowing the history of the holiday makes an argument for both the "sacred and the secular," suggesting that the widespread appeal of Christmas is that it means different things to many different people.

Its history, however, reveals wholly unholy origins. Yule celebrations were taking place in the Scandinavian countries and drunken debauched parties in honor of Mithra were going on elsewhere in Europe on Dec. 25 every year—long before the name Jesus was in circulation. In a long, sordid transfiguration, Christmas traditions were altered time and again. Puritans banned it. Victorians reinstated it. Irving Berlin and Charles Dickens reformed it. And other artists and writers added to its lore.

As is the norm in the American melting pot, our young nation adopted the practices of many different cultures (roaring fires, evergreens, greeting cards) and added several of our own, including the modern-day Santa Claus, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and the crazy commercialism so many now balk at.

Anyone who's ever decorated a living room tree, wrapped a holiday gift, or sung a carol—which, according to Smith, is about 98 percent of Americans—ought to make time to watch this program. While the content might seem to further widen the chasm between those who feel Christmastime is or is not about worship, I say that Christmas is about doing whatever works for you. Given that so many people are dying in today's world over whose beliefs reign supreme, I suggest donating 50 minutes to educating yourself—and, maybe, your children?—on the history and origins of why we do what we do in December.

Christmas Unwrapped is available on Netflix or in five installments on YouTube.