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Nevertheless, for me as a historian, trying to visualize Jesus accurately is a way to understand Jesus more accurately, too. A man with long hair parted in the middle and a long beard—often with fair skin, light brown hair and blue eyes—has become the widely accepted likeness.

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We imagine Jesus in long robes with baggy sleeves, as he is most often depicted in artworks over the centuries. There were many reasons why Jesus was portrayed in what has become the worldwide standard, and none of them were to do with preserving historical accuracy. I explore these in my new book What did Jesus look like? After all, our bodies are not just bodies. We can be old, young, tall, short, weighty, thin, dark-skinned, light-skinned, frizzy-haired, straight-haired, and so on, but our appearance does not begin and end with our physical bodies.

What we do with our bodies creates an appearance. How did he seem to people of the time? There is no neat physical description of Jesus in the Gospels or in ancient Christian literature. But there are incidental details. Usually made of wool, a mantle could be large or small, thick or fine, colored or natural, but for men there was a preference for undyed types.

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He walked in sandals, as implied in multiple Biblical passages see Matthew ; Mark , ; John , and we now know what ancient Judaean sandals were like as they have been preserved in dry caves by the Dead Sea. Among men, only the very rich wore long tunics. It was extremely basic. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Jesus was remembered as looking shabby by a scholar named Celsus, writing in the mid second century, in a treatise against the Christians.

Christmas is here to stay. Such is its power that this assertion of faith can be viewed both as a good and a bad thing, depending on the individual.


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George Bernard Shaw, for one, had his view. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralising subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.

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So that will be an undecided, then. But he is wrong, at least over the power of the shopkeeper and the press. Christmas is bigger than any temporal power. Its power to grip a culture has not weakened over the years, despite the Shavian shrill. It predates both the shopkeeper as a national force and the press as a general presence.

CULTURE KINGS

Christmas is so potent it can stop a Great War, if only for a day, sustain capitalism for a period of up to six months of the year, place intolerable stresses on human relationships and be marked by the sort of excesses that lead victims to seek consolation and redemption in self-help groups in dank church halls. It can excite the child, drain the adult, move the unbeliever and frustrate the religious faithful.

Its all-encompassing reach is such that a charity single, indeed the charity single, would suggest that if famine were not enough for the poor people of Ethiopia their fate was compounded by their communal inability to know that this was Christmas. It is, then, an awe-inspiring beast and one which is ready to flex its considerable muscle yet again.

It demands inquiry. In an investigation that becomes more engrossing as it proceeds, Flanders covers an expanse of ground with an enviable elegance. It is a substantial work. Flanders, of course, debunks the myths and traces the history with the aid of untiring research and formidable dedication. However, she and the book are at their communal best in placing Christmas in its human dimension.

There is much weary chatter today about how Christmas has lost its religious aspect. Flanders makes a persuasive case that it never really had one. The 19th century, for example, is regularly touted as the acme of Christmas religiosity, yet most carols were non-religious and it was not a holiday, far less a holy day. To digress, it makes my Caledonian heart soar in pride to note that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland basically banned Christmas in and only reluctantly acceded to its place as a holiday in my lifetime.

My very soul further jigs in delight when one recalls that Walt Disney could only find one name when he was looking at the parsimony of Christmas present: Scrooge McDuck.


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  • This has something to do with a personal, religious faith but much to do with a realisation that its power can harness the warmly benevolent as well as the crassly commercial. Flanders is meticulous in examining the less than strong religious roots. The birth of Jesus Christ, for example, is now recreated in nativity scenes across the world, many re-enacted by children. James says the scene was a cave. History tells us that there was a census in that era but one that took place 10 years after the death of Herod.

    All this, of course, testifies to the eternal truth that all religion and most of human belief is based on something more enduring than simple fact, or the lack of it. One must accept, however reluctantly, that Christmas is increasingly a celebration of the material rather than the spiritual. His day of work has nurtured, sustained and fattened the retail industry. But Flanders is too inquisitive, too ferociously intelligent to recite an indictment to Mammon. This is a book that explains wassailing, the growth of mistletoe, the origins of the mince pie, the ubiquity of the Christmas tree no, not all down to Prince Albert and the emergence of Santa as a captain of industry.

    But there is much more to the story.