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Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas (1997)

The history of Christmas and the traditions that make the holidays the most wonderful time of the year.


Alison Guss




Cast overview:
Harry Smith ... Himself - Narrator (voice)
Forrest Church Forrest Church ... Himself - Minister, All Souls Church (as Rev. Forrest Church)
A.W. Purdue A.W. Purdue ... Himself - Historian, Open University, England
Elaine Pagels Elaine Pagels ... Herself - Religion Department, Princeton University
Stephen Nissenbaum Stephen Nissenbaum ... Himself - Historian, University of Massachusetts
Penne L. Restad Penne L. Restad ... Herself - Historian, University of Texas
Leigh Eric Schmidt Leigh Eric Schmidt ... Himself - Religion Department, Princeton
Alan Dundes Alan Dundes ... Himself - Folklore Department, UC Berkeley)
Jean Shepherd Jean Shepherd ... Himself - Humorist
James Stewart ... George Bailey (archive footage)
Donna Reed ... Mary Bailey (archive footage)


The history of Christmas and the traditions that make the holidays the most wonderful time of the year.

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Release Date:

December 1997 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

History Channel See more »
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Technical Specs


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Did You Know?


The producers mistakenly identify the production of "A Christmas Carol" excerpted as having been made in 1958, when in fact it is a 1949 production. See more »


Jean Shepherd: [last lines, referring to Christmas] Now you can be cynical all you want, but you still enjoy it.
See more »


Features Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948) See more »


The Christmas Song
Music by Mel Tormé
Lyrics by Robert Wells
Sung by Bing Crosby
See more »

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User Reviews

Exceptional Documentary
15 January 2004 | by harry-76See all my reviews

For those who appreciate researching topics for their historical value according to facts, this documentary on the history of Christmas is rich in its content.

It traces what's now known as Christmas from a "B.C. season" of pagan holiday ritual to its adaptation for the current annual celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Its early origins of secular festivals of bawdy carousings are clearly brought out. Long before the first century European cultures sought to take breaks in midwinter before the (Gregorian) calendar new year began. After working hard it was a relief to join in carnival activities of drink, dance and sensuality. Rich and poor were depicted here as reversing roles for this period, and it all seems more like a mardi gras, full of frolic and games.

As centuries came to pass and new religion(s) came into being, the church sought to downplay the festival atmosphere. It became a case of if it couldn't "beat them" (have street and tavern shenanigans abolished) then it would "join them." This resulted in more dignified activities, and later it was decided to incorporate into the period the birth of Jesus.

This outstanding documentary shown on the History Channel this [2003-04] season was actually made six years earlier. Harry Smith is the narrator, and both clergy and nonclergy serve as commentators.

Interesting is the strong effect of Clement Moore's poem ("A Night Before Christmas") and Charles Dickens' short story ("A Christmas Carol") in helping to define what's now known as Christmas. It also considers the evolution of extra-church rituals of the evergreen; poinsettia; the round, plump elf known as St. Nicolas; and commercial aspects surrounding the season.

The documentary is straight forward and objective, clearly presenting the historical development of this now worldwide phenomenon. Even though historians believe scriptural descriptions tend to suggest a calendar season in which Jesus was probably not born, the spirit of the celebration remains. Its calendar placement appears rooted upon ancient rituals honoring the winter solstice.

Pragmatically, the narrator states that there's something so pleasant about receiving a package beautifully wrapped and address to us--and the anticipation of opening that surprise, to reveal something we wanted--that's like no other experience.

Likewise, the joy experienced by our children plays a large part in strong adult participation in and embracing of these traditions. (Some folks seem to love it so much that holiday decorations go up the day after Thanksgiving and remain way past the New Year.)

Regardless of its mythological natures, Christmas is something probably 98% of the world's people are bound to experience in some form. Even the most cynical can't deny the beauty of colored lights, ornaments, delightful decorations and music as a pleasant and rewarding break from the normal work routine in midwinter. It's something that seems to uniquely tie us to our "B.C. ancestors" and reaffirm that what goes around eventually does come around.

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