America's Favorite Holidays

Candid Histories

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Bruce David Forbes
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, Bruce David Forbes examines the development of the five most popular holidays in the United States: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. He begins with their earliest origins, working his way to their present manifestations, distilling much of the leading scholarship on the respective holidays into clear and lucid prose suitable for a popular audience. This is not new or groundbreaking scholarship, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it is a synthesis of current scholarly thinking on the five holidays, presented according to two theoretical frameworks that Forbes argues elucidate the meaning of holidays, or at least the five that he treats. First, adapting Amitai Etzioni’s model, Forbes argues that holidays provide celebrants with opportunities to recommit to shared practices and beliefs; to relax, rest, and recuperate; and lastly, to experience social release. Each holiday combines these elements to differing degrees. Second, Forbes compares the five holidays in his study to a layer cake, determining that each is rooted in a first layer of seasonal celebration, with a “religious or national overlay” serving as the second layer that “attempts to supplement, co-opt, or transform” the original seasonal celebration. “Modern popular culture” then serves as a third layer to this cake (8-9).

Forbes’s dual models allow him to move quickly and clearly through a large amount of history in highly accessible prose. Forbes, whose own background is in American religious history, is strongest when writing about the holidays as they took shape in the American colonies and the United States. He usefully unpacks the blending of Christian theology with Victorian ideals of the family, and the development of consumer culture, in order to break down dichotomies of a “religious” and “consumer” or “cultural” Christmas and Easter. Forbes explores the roots of Halloween before asking how the holiday was domesticated in twentieth-century America, and speculates as to why the heart shape came to be associated with Valentine’s Day. He provides a delightful and masterful narrative of the rise of Thanksgiving, tracing local and national days of fasting and/or thanksgiving, offering a robust account of Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign for the holiday, and tracing the history of both football and Black Friday sales. He also punctures national misconceptions, pointing out that the story of the pilgrims did not become a prominent part of the holiday’s mythology until the late nineteenth century, after Thanksgiving was already a national holiday.

America’s Favorite Holidays’ shortcomings are largely due to its scope. The sweeping nature of Forbes’s project requires him to cover an immense amount of ground, and perhaps the occasional error was inevitable. For instance, when connecting the Christian Easter to Jewish Passover, Forbes accurately notes that scholars believe that Passover itself was a reanimation of existing spring rituals, in which they were given new, and biblically-based meaning. Christianity, then, replicating this pattern, adapted the existing Jewish holiday, along with other spring rituals, to create Easter. Forbes, however, ignores the current scholarly work on the historicity of the book of Exodus, repeatedly referring to the Exodus as a historical event in Jewish history. It is possible, of course, that Forbes is referring not to the Exodus itself, but to the creation of the Exodus story. In either case, his claims would be helped either by clarity of language or by drawing more robustly on contemporary biblical scholarship on the book of Exodus.

One of the charms of this book is Forbes’s personal style, with his own voice and holiday memories framing his historical exploration. That personal style can, however, become a weakness, as Forbes is also frequently tempted to redeem or advocate for holidays. In response to Valentine’s Day’s critics, who complain about the holiday’s commercialism, Forbes responds, “If Valentine’s Day has become one of America’s most culturally dominant holidays, it must be because we in the general public value love and relationships, and we are eager to affirm them.” Similarly, he looks to extend the meaning of Valentine’s Day beyond romantic love, to consider family and friendship. Forbes’s sentiments are lovely, but in these moments, he does move from detailing a cultural phenomenon to advocating for a particular interpretation of the holiday.

America’s Favorite Holidays is an immensely readable book that provides a very engaging history of five widely-celebrated holidays in the United States. While it has its own minor errors, the book dismantles many commonly-held myths about American holidays, and would likely make for lively conversation in a classroom or book group.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samira K. Mehta is Assistant Professor of Religion at Albright College.

Date of Review: 
May 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce David Forbes is Professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College, author of Christmas: A Candid History,and coeditor of Religion and Popular Culture in America.



S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate

I've been using excerpts of Forbes on Xmas for classes for some time so will be nice to have this broader view. Might be a fun way to structure an intro course...


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