Christmas: A Biography

Christmas has been all things to all people: a religious festival, a family celebration, a time of eating and drinking. Yet the origins of the customs which characterise the festive season are wreathed in myth.

When did turkeys become the plat du jour? Is the commercialisation of Christmas a recent phenomenon, or has the emphasis always been on spending? Just who is, or was, Santa Claus? And for how long have we been exchanging presents of underwear and socks?

Food, drink and nostalgia for Christmases past seem to be almost as old as the holiday itself, far more central to the story of Christmas than religious worship. Thirty years after the first recorded Christmas, in the fourth century, the Archbishop of Constantinople was already warning that too many people were spending the day not in worship, but dancing and eating to excess. By 1616, the playwright Ben Jonson was nostalgically recalling the Christmases of yesteryear, confident that they had been better then.

In Christmas: A Biography, acclaimed social historian and best-selling author Judith Flanders casts a sharp and revealing eye on the myths, legends and history of the season, from the origins of the holiday in the Roman empire to the emergence of Christmas trees in central Europe, to what might just possibly be the first appearance of Santa Claus – in Switzerland! – to draw a picture of the season as it has never been seen before.

(a full bibliography of sources and chapter notes for Christmas: A Biography, can be found at


“[Flanders] unwraps layer upon layer of stories, myths and legends about the festival, touching on everyone from Charles Dickens to David Sedaris, who once worked as an elf at Santaland in Macy’s. […] stuffed with facts — enough to satiate even the most ravenous post- prandial taste for quizzing.”
Sunday Times

“…Flanders is too inquisitive, too ferociously intelligent to recite an indictment to Mammon. This is a book that explains wassailing, the growth of mistletoe, the origins of the mince pie, the ubiquity of the Christmas tree (no, not all down to Prince Albert) and the emergence of Santa as a captain of industry. But there is much more to the story. This is a tale where Goethe, Washington Irving and the growth of Tammany Hall all make dramatic entrances in the manner of welcome Christmas guests. They all are called to give evidence in the prosecution of a case that states that the Christmas story is not that of a religious festival corrupted by commerce. It is much, much more interesting than that.”
Hugh McDonald, Sunday Herald

“…a catalogue of colourful information, and as surprising an assortment of items as any you might find heaped up under a tree.”
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Observer

A Cast of Vultures

There was every possibility that I was dead, and my brain hadn’t got the memo. Or maybe it was that I wished I were dead. On reflection, that was more likely.

Usually clear-headed editor Samantha Clair stumbles through her post-book-party morning with the hangover to end all hangovers. But before the ibuprofen has even kicked in, she finds herself entangled in an elaborate saga of missing neighbors, suspected arson, and strange men offering free tattoos.

By the time the grisly news breaks that the fire has claimed a victim, Sam is already in pursuit. Never has comedy been so deadly as she faces down a pair from Thugs ’R’ Us, aided by nothing more than a Scotland Yard boyfriend, a stalwart Goth assistant, and an unnerving knowledge of London’s best farmer’s markets.

From the acclaimed bestselling author Judith Flanders, A Cast of Vultures continues the sharp-witted series starring book editor and amateur sleuth Samantha Clair.

Praise for “A Cast of Vultures”

“Hilarious, big-hearted, clever, whip-smart, and devious.”
Louise Penny, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Wickedly clever―and very funny.”
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

Sam Clair is like a sleuthing Bridget Jones: a witty, self-effacing, smarter than she lets on, sassy singleton in the big city. […] m Flanders’ witty prose keeps readers guessing, and charmed by her delightfully realistic protagonist.

Comparisons to Janet Evanovich’s books about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum are clear. Notably, both feature strong, funny, messy female narrators, and both are set in close-knit neighborhoods populated by (mostly lovable) eccentrics. Both protagonists even have cops for long-suffering boyfriends. Flanders, though, has a distinctive and appealing voice of her own, especially when it comes to wisecracks about a publishing scene beset by executives more interested in “product” than in worthwhile writing
Seattle Times

The highlights of the third in this marvelous and often amusing series (A Bed of Scorpions, 2016, etc.) are neighborhood characters who are a basket of enjoyables and a complex and brainy heroine.
Kirkus Reviews

Flanders adroitly avoids chick-lit clichés, opting for nuanced, multidimensional characters… Insights into the fraught culture of publishing, where editors balance publicity demands with interference by corporate management consultants who refer to books as “product,” lend interest. Readers will look forward to seeing more of smart, successful, self-deprecating Sam.
Publishers Weekly

Working on Assassin’s Creed

Judith Flanders has never played video games – not even Angry Birds – so no one was more surprised than the historian herself when she was approached by the developers of the Assassin’s Creed franchise to serve as a consultant on the latest instalment, set on the streets of 19th-century London amid the Industrial Revolution.

“It’s like you’re an expert on a faraway place,” said Flanders. “You’ve learnt the language. You’ve met people from there. You’ve read every single book that was ever written. Now, you’re invited to go there. That was the exciting thing about this project for me. It was like going to that foreign place that I’ve been reading about for 20 years.”

(read more here)

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate with Judith’s Commentary

See more about Judith’s work on Assassin’s Creed here.

The Making of Home

The idea that ‘home’ is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is so obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it.

But, as Judith Flanders shows in this revealing book, ‘home’ is a relatively new concept. When in 1900 Dorothy assured the citizens of Oz that ‘There is no place like home’, she was expressing a view that was a culmination of 300 years of economic, physical and emotional change.

In The Making of Home, Flanders traces the evolution of the house across northern Europe and America from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, and paints a striking picture of how the homes we know today differ from homes through history.

The transformation of houses into homes, she argues, was not a private matter, but an essential ingredient in the rise of capitalism and the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Without ‘home’, the modern world as we know it would not exist, and as Flanders charts the development of ordinary household objects – from cutlery, chairs and curtains, to fitted kitchens, plumbing and windows – she also peels back the myths that surround some of our most basic assumptions, including our entire notion of what it is that makes a family.

Judith discussing “The Making of Home” on KCRW

Praise for “The Making of Home”

“A fascinating slice of social history on how the idea of home has developed from the Middle Ages to the present day, this book is full of “who knew?” facts, and perceptive observations. […] Flanders uses the home as a lens through which to view changes in the role of women, the family, working patterns, and other cultural shifts. Her knowledge is encyclopaedic. I loved it.”
Brandon Robshaw, Independent

“Flanders’s mind is as well and copiously furnished as any of the interiors she describes. She knows a prodigious amount, from the poetry of William Cowper to the history of Huguenot silk-weaving to the differing decorative traditions of Friesland and the central Netherlands. There is as much here about the illusions of Romanticism as there is about the technology of cast-iron stoves… [Flanders’] prose is witty and lucid, her ideas stimulating. By the 19th century, she writes, our ideal of “home” was so well established, “that no one could remember a time when it had not held sway”. Her project is to counter that  forgetfulness. In this clever and entertaining book she gives the everyday, from bed-making to drainpipes, all the vivid interest of something newly made strange.”
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Sunday Times

“…a delicious yet nerdy treat. Enjoy it on your sofa while reflecting that this item of furniture did not make its arrival in most houses until around 1740. Before then people sat on benches, a bit uncomfortable. Or on beds — which were an acceptable place to entertain even acquaintances, according to Flanders. Yet another reason why this book deserves a place on your shelves, bedside table, or ottoman”
Anne Ashworth, The Times

“[Flanders’] ambitious scope necessitates a narrative that sometimes whizzes by at breakneck speed but Flanders is at her riveting best when she gets right down to the housework. Flanders demonstrates how nakedly the measure of our social worth is laid out in domestic consumables. She is an efficient debunker of myths about poverty, family and the past. In her search for meaning she wipes the dust, clears the cobwebs and pulls the stuffing out of the cushions. It is in the down and dirty of the home that our hopes and delusions are revealed.”
Lucy Letherbridge, Financial Times

“…a hugely informative book, and worth reading for the feminist chapter on women’s changing roles alone. An absorbing read.”
Viv Watts, Daily Express

A Murder of Magpies

(first published as “Writer’s Block)

You know when you have one of those days at the office? You spill coffee on your keyboard, the finance director goes on an expenses rampage and then, before you know it, your favourite author is murdered. When Samantha Clair decides to publish journalist Kit Lovell’s tell-all book on the death of fashion designer Rodrigo Aleman, she can scarcely imagine the dangers ahead. Cue a rollercoaster ride into the dark realms of fashion, money-laundering and murder, armed with nothing but her e-reader and her trusty stock of sarcasm.

Praise for “A Murder of Magpies”

“It’s a thriller, a wickedly funny insider’s view of the book trade and the heroine has a backbone – for me the perfect storm of an entertaining read. Sam Clair lives alone and likes it; she’s a great one for making her own rules. She works as a publisher and she recently commissioned Kit Lovell, Gay Best Friend and fashion guru, to write a book about the murder of an iconic designer. But several I people are taking an unhealthy interest in the manuscript, and suddenly Sam’s quiet working life is getting murkier by the minute. What’s in the book that I people are so desperate to see? And where on earth is Kit? To make it more complicated, a policeman is buzzing around her, and he’s distractingly gorgeous. Best of all, Sam’s Dr Watson is her elegant, overachieving mother — a successful lawyer and all-round brilliant character who’s not above a little mild law-breaking. Loved it.”
Kate Saunders, The Times

“I had no idea that the publishing world could be so funny… Hilarious, big-hearted, clever, whip-smart and devious. A truly wonderful crime novel by a brilliant writer… Judith Flanders has found that difficult, magical ground between humour and crime, where the death is never trivialized, but the territory is hysterically pilloried. Brava!”
Louise Penny, author of The Long Way Home

“Deadly funny. Judith Flanders’ wry take on publishing and murder should be on everybody’s wish list.”
Donna Leon

“The array of delightful and believable characters, as well as a neat turn at the end, will leave readers well satisfied and anticipating the next installment.”
Publishers Weekly

“From the first page you want Samantha Clair to be your new best friend… [Flanders] keeps the reader intrigued and laughing in equal measure.”
Daily Mail

“Mordantly funny; at last a novel about the world of fashion that seems to find it as ridiculous as I do.”
Philip Kerr, author of A Man Without Breath


The Victorian City

vic-city-pbkVictorian buildings still surround Londoners, so we are under the impression we know the Victorian city and how it functioned. But just as Flanders’ The Victorian House revealed the long-lost daily routines of the Victorian home, so now she describes the comings and goings of the world’s largest city. Calling on the magical eye of Charles Dickens, possibly the greatest ‘look-er’ the city has ever seen, Flanders takes her readers down the teeming city streets of the 19th century, conjuring up the once-common street-bands, street-sellers, street-walkers and street-children. How did passengers hail an omnibus? How were the streets paved before macadam? How did householders collect their drinking water? With these and other questions, Flanders brings back to life a city of pea-soup fogs, horse manure, and even gutters running with blood.

(read more about The Victorian City)


Recent Posts and Journalism


Stuff vs. Theory - In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled Fun Stuff I Have Found Out. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to … Continue reading
Wheeldon: Winter’s Tale, ENB: Lest They Forget, BRB: Pagodas - Choreography may be the most difficult of all performing-art forms. The dance-lover is all too aware that the standard theatre or opera repertoires contain thousands of works. Dance, by contrast, has a repertoire that numbers only in the hundreds, and … Continue reading
Richard Hamilton - RICHARD HAMILTON, Tate Modern RICHARD HAMILTON AT THE ICA RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007, Alan Cristea Gallery Mark Godfrey Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todoli, editors, RICHARD HAMILTON (352pp. Tate. £29.99) Jonathan Jones, RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints … Continue reading
Modernism and Dance - Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55) In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells … Continue reading
‘Everybody Dies’: bodies in art - Sam Mendes’s current production of King Lear at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, is fascinating in many ways, perhaps the most notable being the ramping up of the body-count of this bloody play. In most stagings, the Fool disappears, … Continue reading