Featured Reviews

Emily Hunter McGowin – Christmas (Fullness of Time Series) [Feature Review]

Navigating the Tensions of Christmas

A Feature Review of

Christmas: The Season of Life and Light
Emily Hunter McGowin

Hardback: IVP Books, 2023
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Reviewed by Lindsey Cornett

Christmas is upon us, but it can be difficult to celebrate the season in a manner that is not only festive, but also authentic and spiritually meaningful. During Advent, we do our best to make space for quiet reflection, but once Christmas arrives, the days are overwhelmed with crumbled wrapping paper, dirty dishes, and gifts to be returned. As Christians, it is right and good to honor the season’s sacredness and make use of the opportunity to connect with God, but this effort is often met with obstacles.

I don’t think I am alone in feeling the pressure of a Western, capitalist Christmas, where the emphasis remains on wrapped presents, Bing Crosby, and Christmas light displays. The calendar is packed and the shopping list is long. This is a season which kicks off (too soon) on November 1 and wraps up (again, too soon) on December 31. By the time January 1 has arrived, our collective consciousness has shifted focus from “peace on earth, goodwill to men” to “new year, new you.”

Observing the traditional 12 days of Christmas offers some hope of resisting this push, but it’s a liturgical season I was completely unfamiliar with until well into adulthood. Until then, I only knew of the “partridge in a pear tree” variety, and I incorrectly assumed the song was about a twelve day countdown leading up to the big celebration.

We approach Christmas with twin desires: to participate in the cultural merriment, while keeping the “reason for the season” front and center.

If we need a guide for navigating this tension, we can find it in Emily Hunter McGowin’s Christmas: The Season of Life and Light— the latest addition to the Fullness of Time series, edited by Esau McCaulley.  In the introduction, McCaulley describes the books in this series as “theological and spiritual reflections that seek to provide spiritual formation by helping the reader live fully into the practices of each season.” Christmas certainly fits that description.

When I first opened to the table of contents, I was immediately struck by the chapter titles. McGowin divides the book into five primary themes, each based on a characteristic of God. It would have been easy (and frankly, expected) to organize the book around the major plot points of Jesus’ birth, or even the key people, but the author does not take the easy way out here. She first explores “The Origins of Christmas” in Chapter 1. The remaining sections are: “God of the Great Exchange,” “God of the Poor,” “God of Creation and Re-Creation,” and “God of Life and Light.” This structure is significant, because it reinforces the thesis of the book and the larger meaning of the season as a whole: Christmas is, at its core and most importantly, about who God is and how God works in the world and relates to humanity.

At the same time, McGowin doesn’t make the reader feel that we must abandon our decorated fir trees or visits to mall Santas. (A quick note: I do not mean to arbitrarily draw a line between the secular and spiritual here; my personal sensibilities fall in the “everything is spiritual” camp. However, I trust you will understand what I mean when, in this case, I refer to “secular” or “cultural” Christmas traditions, as opposed to those more closely connected to the stories of Jesus’s incarnation.) McGowin parses through connections to church history, what is a byproduct of industrialization and capitalism, and how these traditions became so engrained with the holiday. For example, in the chapter titled “God of the Great Exchange,” she connects the dots between gift-giving as a practice to mark the New Year in the Roman Empire, the life of Saint Nicholas of Myra, and the economic savvy of American retailers beginning in the late 1800’s. In Chapter 4, “The God of Creation and Re-Creation,” she explains how we arrived at the now-ubiquitous Christmas tree, while busting the myth of its pagan origins.

I appreciate that McGowin does not try to manufacture significance or invent meaning for these traditions. She doesn’t not dismiss or belittle, but neither does she attempt to superficially spiritualize them. She simply explains some history and shares honestly about their value, nostalgia, and belovedness. And then, because she so thoughtfully structured the chapters around the aforementioned themes, she is able to seamlessly bring the focus back to the spiritual. Within each chapter, she weaves together personal stories, liturgical teaching, history, and Biblical narrative. In many ways, her training as a preacher shines here, because each section reads a bit like a sermon: concise, instructive, applicable. The result is a book that gives the reader a deeper understanding of the season’s origins, as well as the potential it holds for meaningful worship and spiritual experiences today. McGowin writes, “Observed with wisdom, thoughtfulness, and care, the twelve days of Christmas provide numerous opportunities to rejoice in God’s salvific work in Christ and open ourselves to the Spirit’s transforming power in our hearts, homes, and communities.”

McGowin also seems to go to some effort to include non-Western and non-white traditions and perspectives. She begins Chapter 1 by talking about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the ways Palestinian Christinas typically gather in this holy places during this time of year (an inclusion will feels particularly poignant and important, given the realities of conflict in Israel and Palestine at the time of this review). When discussing famous artistic interpretations of the Christmas story, she chose to focus on the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American painter. Anecdotes from the Philippines, Iraq, and elsewhere are included to create a more well-rounded portrait of how Christmas is observed globally.

At a mere 134 pages (including an appendix of traditional scriptures and prayers from The Book of Common Prayer), this book is a quick read but chock-full of valuable teaching and insight. My shelves are full of so many books about Advent, Lent, and Easter, but ironically, this is the only title focused on Christmastide. I look forward to returning to it year after year.

Lindsey Cornett

Lindsey Cornett is a loud talker, obsessive coffee drinker, and lover of the written word who lives in downtown Indianapolis with her scientist husband, 3 kids, and crazy Bernedoodle. Most days, you’ll find her wrangling the dog, managing snacks, reheating her coffee, and trying to savor as much joy and gratitude as she can in the middle of these very full days. Lindsey writes a monthly-ish email newsletter about the intersections of faith, community, and curiosity at lindseycornett.substack.com.

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