Great Texts Professor Explains the Magic and Mystery Behind Beloved Christmas Traditions in Newest Book

November 7, 2022

In his recent book, Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe, Dr. Michael Foley, Professor of Patristics in the Great Texts Program, dives deep into the history of Christmas and the customs that surround the beloved holiday that celebrates Jesus’s birth. Throughout its pages, Foley guides readers through the history of our favorite Christmas carols, foods, and drinks and even digs into the Yuletide season’s dark and ghoulish side. As we prepare for this year’s Christmas festivities, Dr. Foley answers a few questions about his newest project:

What inspired you to write Mistletoe?
Ever since I was a boy, I have been excited by Christmas and fascinated by its customs. No other time of the year has such rich symbolism, but the symbols are not always self-explanatory. Why holly and not boxwood? Why is there a Christmas tree, and what do the red balls represent? And why do we kiss under mistletoe? Christmas was fun but puzzling.

Who might be interested in this book?
Why, anyone who has ever wondered about the magic of Christmas! Also, this book is for anyone who has heard conflicting accounts about Christmas and wants to get to the truth. Have you ever been told that December 25 was chosen as the birthday of Jesus because of a Roman sun god or that the Christmas tree is derived from a pagan yuletide practice? As it turns out, these explanations are as mythical as Santa Claus himself. I draw from the latest scholarship to get to the bottom of things and then present my findings to the reader in a user-friendly way.

How can this book enrich our Christmas experience?
Friends and colleagues who have read it tell me that they will never look at Christmas the same way again. It has deepened their appreciation of the season and its meaning, and it will help them celebrate Christmas more robustly.

Was there anything in your research about Christmas traditions that surprised you?
The biggest surprise was the dark side of Christmas, that is, all the legends about witches, goblins, ghosts, and even werewolves that are active during Christmastime. I knew, of course, about Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but I did not know that he was drawing from a long and well-established tradition.

Tell us how this project fits into the context of your work.
One of my areas of research is “heortology,” the study of (Christian) feasts, so this project fit my interests hand-in-glove.

Can you share a few key takeaways from the book?

  • The celebration of Christmas has changed quite a bit over the centuries, but the one constant is gratitude for the birth of the God-man Jesus Christ.
  • We might be celebrating Christmas all wrong these days. We start buying Christmas products the day after Halloween, listen to Christmas music earlier and earlier each year, and throw raucous Christmas parties during Advent so that by the time December 25 comes and goes, we are sick of Christmas. Our ancestors may have had a better model: they exercised restraint during the buildup to Christmas and then had uninterrupted merriment during the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25-January 6). On the other hand, our modern Christmas is more family-friendly than Christmas in the Middle Ages, which was more about adult mischief than childhood innocence.
  • Some of the stories behind our favorites Christmas songs are quite strange and unexpected, and some of the authors weren’t even Christian.
  • For those near Waco, Dr. Foley will be hosting a book release party on campus during Christmas on 5th Street. Details are available here. Interested readers can order a copy of Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe by visiting Regnery Press’s website.