Festival of Incarnation

by Donald Heinz

Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 274 pp. + xiii +16 pp. color illus.
$25.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Urban C. von Wahlde
Deck the Halls! The full pressure of the celebration of Christmas in the West is in full swing again this year. With all the lights, Christmas trees, Santa visits and the hunt for presents at crowded malls, have we lost sight of the true meaning of the celebration? Has the commercialization of the holiday stolen our joy in Immanuel and replaced it with a credit card bill?

Rummaging through the centuries of Christian tradition, Donald Heinz, professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico, hopes to restore the scattered narrative of the festival of Christmas by examining the material culture of the holiday. From art (richly illustrated with 24 color plates) to gift-giving traditions, from feast songs to saint’s stories, Heinz’s wide-ranging examination reawakens the imagination to the wonders of the celebration of the Christ-child.

Noting the prevalence of Christmas plays celebrating the nativity, Heinz constructs his work in three dramatic acts that cover the plot of Christmas, the theater of the incarnation and the extravagance of the incarnation. He opens with an overview of the birth of Christ as found in Matthew and Luke, turning from there to survey the major players in the nativity story. By beginning with the actual narratives of the Gospels, Heinz helps those who may be approaching Christmas as an outsider gain a stronger appreciation of narrative itself.

Within the second dramatic act, the reader discovers the history of Christmas celebrations. With a sly nod to the bathrobed nativity players of local churches, Heinz recounts how Christmas has always been celebrated as a communal affair complete, it turns out, with nativity plays. It is only in recent centuries that the Christmas celebration moved to a focus on family and the emotional connections we share.

The final movement in Heinz’s theater of incarnation places the reader on the broad stage as he discusses the symbols of Christmas, including the reason neighbors construct outdoor light displays that rival Clark Griswold’s Christmas fantasy. For most readers, Heinz’s exploration of the evolution of the Christmas icon Santa Claus will be one of the more fascinating chapters. Of course, no Christmas celebration is complete without singing, and Heinz thoroughly covers the origins of many popular carols.

The greatest challenge is Heinz’s lack of focus. The text flits about like an over-stimulated child, moving from point to point without stringing them together as a cohesive unit. It is not until the conclusion that the reader discovers that the aim of the work is to present a “fuller realization of the religious core of Christmas.” To be fair, the synthesis that Heinz attempts to provide covers a large territory, but the pieces still appear too fragmented and disjointed to enjoy a full picture.

Explore the date of Christmas in Andrew McGowan’s popular Bible Review article “How December 25 Became Christmas,” available for free in Bible History Daily.

Despite these shortcomings, Heinz leaves the reader well informed about the rich tapestry of Christmas traditions and very aware that the Christmas celebration dominated by the prevailing winds of capitalism “focuses on all the materials that claim to be good instead of on the Good that claims to be material.” In short, we lose sight of Incarnate Jesus, the center of the celebration. Perhaps many still do return to singing, “O come, O come, Immanuel,” knowing that in the presence of God with us, there is little need for anything else.

John M. Yeats is assistant professor of Church History at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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