Culture

The true story of Christmas you probably never knew – told by The Rest is History podcast hosts

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook unpick the events that make up our modern understanding of Christmas

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. Image: CHRIS FLOYD

“The birth of Jesus is followed by the Massacre of the Innocents,” notes Tom Holland. “The sense that life is brutal and cruel and dark is fundamental to the Christian understanding of what Christmas is about.” 

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Tom Holland’s Christmas message,” adds Dominic Sandbrook. 

Holland and Sandbrook are two of the most esteemed historians in the country, with legions of best-selling books and an immensely popular podcast. From the birth of democracy to the fall of Saigon, Viking conquests to JFK conspiracies (via a significant number of eunuchs, a favourite subject of the podcast), The Rest is History makes the past relevant to the present, in digestible episodes that are educational, entertaining, and loaded with wit and irony. Spin-off live tours and a new book confirm that the podcasting pair are at least partly responsible for reawakening our interest in history. 

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At this time of year, our thoughts turn to Bethlehem. That o’ little town conjures up images of stables, little donkeys, angels, peace on earth and goodwill to all men. But that’s a place separated in time and by imagination from current realities. Bethlehem, now in the Palestinian territories, is only 46 miles from Gaza. The horrors of current conflict have roots that go back as far as, and beyond, the Christmas story. 

Back when Jesus was born, Judea was an occupied territory. 

“The Judeans are one of a number of different peoples subordinated by the Romans,” Holland says. “In the first century BC, Pompey the Great, who becomes the great rival of Julius Caesar, captures Jerusalem. From that point on, the Judeans are under the thumb of the Romans.  

“But they’re used to this. The Judeans have spent a lot of time under the thumb of various empires, whether it’s Persians or Macedonians. Herod is a puppet king. The Romans treat the Judeans pretty well by Roman standards. I mean, the Romans did think the Judeans were weird, but the Romans thought everyone was weird. The Egyptians worship gods with animal heads, Syrian priests cut off their testicles – eunuchs again – the Britons sacrifice people in bogs. 

“But for Jesus, it wouldn’t be too bad.” 

Though, in all likelihood, Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem. “The idea that people who were being put on a census or taxed were required to go to their natal home is improbable,” Holland says. “You couldn’t do that in a pre-industrial society, people wouldn’t have the records. All the evidence points to Jesus being born in Nazareth – he’s called Jesus of Nazareth.” 

So why the emphasis on Bethlehem? 

“Partly that it’s where David, the great king of Israel was born, but it’s also because prophetic Hebrew scripture predicts that Bethlehem is where the Messiah will be born. 

“Going back 2,000 years, the people who are writing the gospels believe that Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture, so it’s perfectly understandable that they would explain events in Jesus’s life through those prisms.

“In a way the nativity elements in the gospels are separate from the rest of the gospel accounts, which I think are much more rooted in first-hand memory. Nativity accounts are more poetic, the interweaving of myth with history is much more complex.”

Christ was probably born some time Before Christ

Tom Holland

Two gospels talk of the nativity, Matthew and Luke. The traditional Christmas story is a stitching together of both. 

“They’re consciously engaging with myth, this idea that prophecy is being fulfilled,” Holland continues. “The rough rubric is that Luke tends to be more interested in Judean prophecy and Matthew tends to be more interested in the expansion of the infant church out into the world. So it’s in Luke you get the shepherds, in Matthew that you get the wise men.

“The gospel accounts of the nativity are an attempt to frame in narrative, that sense of paradox: that this is the one God who has fashioned the entire world and at the same time it’s a baby crying in straw.”

Ask any kid with and advent calendar when Christmas is and they’ll tall you. But otherwise, the dates are all over the place.

“Christ was probably born sometime Before Christ,” Holland says. “The Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius and Herod, the two historical figures who feature in nativity narratives can’t really be squared [King Herod died in 4 BC, Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 AD].” 

Herod, King of Judea illustration
Herod, King of Judea: a 19th century illustration by Claudius Joseph Ciappori-Puche. Image: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

Then there’s the big day itself in December. It turns out the date of Jesus’s birth is entirely determined by that of his death. The third-century Roman historian Sextus Julius Africanus assumed that the date of the crucifixion, thought to be 25 March, must also be the day that the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary with some good, if surprising, news. Add nine months and you land on 25 December. 

But it took another few hundred years for Christmas to be celebrated. The first noel could technically be seen as taking place in 336, during the reign of Constantine. The word Christmas isn’t recorded in the English language until 1038. 

While Holland is a classical history specialist, Sandbrook’s expertise cover more modern times. Relatively modern times. 

“We have records that show that in the Middle Ages, mediaeval kings marked Christmas,” he says. “They would have big feasts, they would give land grants, these kinds of things. Henry VIII loved Christmas because he loved roistering and feasting. But it kind of waxed and waned. 

“In the 17th century, the period of the Civil War, hardcore Puritans thought that because Christmas isn’t mentioned in the Bible, marking it was superstitious. It was too much about getting hammered and this took away from what you should be doing, which is contemplating the Bible.” 

“The idea that Christmas festivities were taken from pagan antecedents is a Puritan idea,” Holland adds. 

It wasn’t pagans we stole the modern idea of Christmas from, but Americans. 

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“In the 18th century, there’s no cult of Christmas,” Sandbrook says. “Christmas becomes reinvented in the 19th century, largely by Americans.” 

A key figure is Washington Irving, who wrote texts steeped in nostalgia for the baronial hall-style festivities of the Middle Ages. “It’s almost like Walt Disney building castles as a way of appropriating Old World style and refashioning it for an American audience,” Holland says. 

“It’s a festival that is reinvented for a commercialised, domesticated age,” Sandbrook continues. “It’s no longer about the Lord throwing open his hall to the whole village. Now you gather in your home, it’s the exultation of the family.” 

In many episodes of their podcast, the parallels between historical events and contemporary news stories and figures are staggering. When dark times seem to be repeating themselves, doesn’t a historian have a constant, numbing sense of déjà vu? 

On the day of the Hamas attacks in southern Israel, Holland was in Athens to deliver a talk on the Emperor Hadrian. 

“Hadrian was the great patron of Greek culture,” Holland begins. “While Hadrian was in Athens promoting a kind of Greek equivalent of the European Union, the Panhellenion, terrible news comes to him from Judea.  

“There had been an uprising a few decades before. Jerusalem had been captured by the Romans in AD 70 and had been wiped off the face of the earth. There had been this grumbling insurgency ever since. The Romans could live with this, but while Hadrian is in Athens, there is a massive uprising.

The Romans find that the Judeans have been hiding weapons in in tunnels, there has been a total intelligence failure. And even though the Romans have overwhelming military superiority, the Judeans are able to take the Romans by surprise and launch atrocities designed to rally the people and demonstrate that the Roman superpower can be attacked. 

“Hadrian finds he has no choice but to launch a grinding war of destruction, which ends up effectively with the obliteration of Judean culture, and at the end of this process, he renames it Palestina, with consequences we’re living with today. The echoes of what is happening in Israel are obviously very unsettling.” 

“It’s a fallacy to think that long running conflicts and antagonisms are like mathematical problems to which there is a neat solution or indeed any solution at all,” Sandbrook says. “For that reason, I don’t think history repeats itself so much as that some issues are intractable. 

“Actually, if you go back 100 years to 1923, there are many interesting parallels – the end of the Russian Civil War, all this hideous conflict, a lot of it in Ukraine. There are perennial geopolitical or religious or cultural issues. Of course, a lot has changed, but human nature hasn’t changed, nor have the realities of human history.” 

The Rest is History book cover

The Rest is History: History’s Most Curious Questions, Answered by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook is out now (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

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