The World Encyclopedia of Christmas

by Gerry Bowler

Published by McClelland & Stewart

257 pages, 2000

Buy it online







I'm Dreaming of a White... Ziemassvetki?

Reviewed by Monica Stark


"In the Czech Republic, a child gazes at a carp swimming in her bath tub; in Portugal a man is trying to make a turkey drunk. In Ethiopia men are shouting and waving hockey sticks; in New Zealand a family is barbecuing on the beach .... A myriad of different activities indicate that it is Christmas time on the planet Earth."

So begins The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, an ambitious undertaking that has been author Gerry Bowler's "preoccupation for more than ten years."

Christmas has clearly become the world's most widely celebrated holiday. And no longer is it exclusively tied to religion. As Bowler points out, Christmas "is celebrated on every continent, by Christians for whom it is the second most sacred date on the calendar, and by increasing numbers of people of other faiths and folk with no religious faith at all." For an increasing number of people, Christmas is about the joy of sharing presents with loved ones and a time to pause our busy lives to spend some time and perhaps a special meal with those closest to us. "Everywhere, however, and at all times," writes Bowler, "it has been the season of miracle and surprise, the time closest to the hearts of the people who keep it."

The World Encyclopedia of Christmas is a celebration of the season in alphabetical order. The kind of book you know your family will be referencing 10 years from now when someone asks if you know all of the words to "We Three Kings." The answer is at your fingertips. Literally. And you'll also be able to report that, "The words and music for this popular Epiphany carol were written by American clergyman John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1820-91) in 1857." As well as some other related tidbits.

Or if someone asks why so many cultures use lights as part of their Christmas celebrations, you'd be able to read that:

It is said, without much historical foundation, that Martin Luther was struck by the beauty of the winter sky as he walked home in the dark one Christmas Eve. Inspired by the sight, and trying to create the wonder of the heavens above Bethlehem on the night of the Nativity, he became the first person to place lit candles on the Christmas tree.

There's more on this topic. A lot more. Bowler goes on to write about how lit candles make a "troublesome ornament" and how affixing them to the Christmas tree has been handled over the years. But no matter how they were put on the tree, they always had to be carefully watched. High tech attempts to illuminate the Yuletide tree mostly met with dismal failure. For instance, in 1878 "an enterprising Englishman devised a metal Christmas tree with gas jets, but his invention attracted few buyers." It's not difficult to see why. As with so many other things, electricity provided a clean, safe alternative when the "invention of the Christmas tree light in 1882 showed the way of the future."

But, even then, we're not done with the lights. Bowler tells us that the White House first used electric lights on a Christmas tree in 1895 while Grover Cleveland was President. Next we learn about the evolution of the bulb shape (and there's more to that than meets the eye) and we hear about bubble lights and "the rotating color wheel." Not to let lights go by so easily, however, the next entry is for "Lights at Christmas" which not only provides the symbolism for these lights, but sends us off to look elsewhere in the book under CANDLES, CANDLEMAS, FAROLITAS, FIREWORKS, LICHSTOCK, ST. LUCIA, LUMINARIA, ORNAMENTS, PAROL, PYRAMID, TREE and YULE LOG. Clearly, Bowler has done his homework.

Though the book is illustrated by encyclopedia-style black and white photos and illustrations throughout, an eight-page color section offers additional visual illumination. Some Rockwell illustrations (of course), as well as Christmas-connected art from throughout the ages.

The World Encyclopedia of Christmas is broad in scope and exceptionally detailed. Bowler has included many modern entries -- entries for both film versions of Miracle on 34th Street as well as entries for Dr. Seuss' Grinch, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Turkey Narcosis -- as well as the history of all things Christmassy, the Christmas traditions of all nations you can think of. In short, it's hard to imagine something that relates to Christmas that hasn't been included in Bowler's book. Now make sure you're careful with your lichstock if you go masking on the Night of Cakes. And Hristos Razdajetsja! | December 2000


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.