Brian Earl sits on Zoom in front of a handmade fireplace diorama, a bookshelf strung with Christmas lights and a keyboard, upon which I imagine he can play a cheery tune or two.
“There is so much Christmas that you are missing out on,” Earl says. “For some of that you can be grateful—Christmas used to have a lot of monsters in it, a lot of gross food and threats of child abuse. Christmas wasn’t always this totally benign warm, fuzzy thing. But, then again, there are a lot of Christmas [traditions] that if you tried—hey, you might like them.”
Earl is the producer of the Christmas Past podcast and a new book on Christmas traditions by the same name. He wants to know all there is to know about Christmas—both the monsters and the chestnuts, the Protestant Reformation and the figgy pudding.
“Your favorite internet know-it-all will probably tell you ‘Oh, Christmas trees are actually a pagan tradition’ and it is like, yes, there is some truth to that, but really, as a Christmas tradition that we all celebrate, we’re talking just a couple of generations.”
For a nuanced history of the Christmas tree, you can listen to “Christmas Trees,” the Christmas Past episode from Nov. 28 of this year. It involves a legend of human sacrifice and other less dramatic elements, like commercialization.
In recounting stories like these, Earl is the first to say he is no expert on Christmas. He’s a software designer. He started producing Christmas Past from his basement in Willow Glen during a podcast kick in 2015.
“Most of the ones I liked were NPR-style ones like Planet Money, Freakanomics, Radio Lab and so I said to myself, I wonder if that exists but for Christmas. I wonder if Freakanomics for Christmas is a thing. So, I went for searching for it and no such thing existed.”
Between his initial research into Christmas traditions, reading source texts, interviewing authors, writing a script, recording voice over, doing the sound editing and design, Earl estimates, conservatively, that each 10- to 15-minute podcast takes about 40 hours of work. Podcast episodes mainly feature Earl diving deep on a particular element of Christmas. Other episodes include readings of Christmas stories or, as in one episode, audio postcards and interviews from outside Daly City’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair.
Listeners have rewarded Earl’s efforts. Back in 2020, he recalls, “the podcast crossed a magic number: it passed a million downloads.” Most amazing is the period of time in which these downloads occur. “Ninety percent of my downloads happen four weeks out of the year,” Earl says.
It was the success of the podcast that encouraged Earl to write Christmas Past: The Fascinating Stories Behind Our Favorite Holiday Traditions.
The holiday’s history, he says, is full of “delightful surprise.”
“I made a really big point in the proposal saying, when you’re reading this you’re not going to feel like I’m wagging your finger at you and saying everything you thought you knew about Christmas was wrong. There needs to be surprise, but it needs to be delightful surprise.”
This delightful surprise keeps Christmas fresh for Earl, a figure who, in his ease and kindness, reminds me of a seasonal Mr. Rogers. Not the sort to wag a finger.
“Look, Christmas isn’t just the most wonderful time of the year—even though it totally is that—it’s also the most fascinating. There is no other cultural phenomenon whereby we change so much and so drastically the way that the world looks, the way the world smells and sounds. We change the way we dress for Christmas. We even change the way we talk. When else do you use the word ‘merry’? Or ‘humbug’? It changes us for like six weeks out of the year. And then for every tradition, there is the story of where it came from. It had to come from somewhere.”
Like poinsettias. What is the story with those freakishly red plants and where are they the rest of the year? Christmas Past does cover poinsettias and is available wherever books are sold.