Explainer
Culture at Christmas
6 min read

Beyond Christmas cards: a guide to the season’s art, past and present

Traditionally at this time of year “great art comes tumbling through your letterbox”. Jonathan Evens explores the historic and contemporary art of Christmas.

Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell and Area Dean of Basildon. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, and writes regularly on the visual arts and The Arts more generally.

A stained-glass style illustration of an Inuit mother cradling an infant with a halo-like background.
Northern lullaby, Nori Peter, Canada.
via BAME Anglican.

The first commercial Christmas card was sent in 1843, 180 years ago, but is this relatively recent tradition of sending Christmas greetings by post slowing dying a death? The result of the combined impact of environmental concerns, online options and the increased cost of postage? What images have characterised Christmas cards over that period and how will you choose the perfect Christmas image to send, whether digitally or in the mail? 

The UK’s Royal Mail estimates that it still delivers 150 million cards during the Christmas period while other sources claim that one billion Christmas cards are sold in the UK annually. As a result, the traditional Christmas card is still going strong. 

The tradition was established when Sir Henry Cole, the founding director of the V&A, sent the first commercial Christmas card as a way of responding to the flood of Christmas and New Year letters that he and others had begun to receive following the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post. Cole, who had been involved in the introduction of the Penny Post, commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to design a card and advertised it in the Athenaeum paper as “A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends”. Horsley’s design is a triptych with a central family party scene, in which three generations drink wine to celebrate the season, offset by two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked” – which derive from Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. 

In this period card companies would commission designs from significant artists or hold competitions to produce new designs, while Christmas card designs themselves were reviewed in the national press. 

Early Christmas cards featured flowers and religious symbols including angels watching over sleeping children. However, George Buday, in his book ‘The History of the Christmas Card’ (1954), suggests that, “the Christmas card from its beginning was more closely associated in the minds of the senders with the social aspect – the festivities connected with Christmas than with the religious function of the season”.  

By the 1880s, a prominent card-maker, Prang and Mayer, was producing over five million cards a year and this expansion saw the now familiar iconography of Christmas established: “winter scenes of robins, holly, evergreens, country churches and snowy landscapes; along with indoor scenes of seasonal rituals and gift giving, from decorating trees and Christmas dinner, to Santa Claus, children’s games, pantomime characters and Christmas crackers”. In this period card companies would commission designs from significant artists or hold competitions to produce new designs, while Christmas card designs themselves were reviewed in the national press. 

Card companies, of course, also recognised the value of utilising great art from the Western tradition, particularly the art of the Renaissance. As art critic Jonathan Jones has noted:  

“Great art comes tumbling through your letterbox at this time of year. Here are the kings from the east laden with gifts, gathering at a stable where an ox and an ass look lovingly at a baby child. Mary sits demurely. Shepherds hearken to an angel. You pop it on the mantelpiece with all the other cards.” 

Although the earliest nativity we know of dates back to the third century - being a stucco preserved in the catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome - when we think “Nativity,” we are probably, as Victoria Emily Jones has noted, thinking of church art from the Renaissance “because the Church held particular sway at that time, in that place”. The National Gallery’s exhibition 'Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed', by highlighting an overlooked Renaissance artist, demonstrates the extent to Renaissance art centred on the life of Christ, with a prominent place for nativity scenes. Their choice of December for the opening of this exhibition shows the extent to which we associate such art with the Christmas season. The exhibition includes beautiful renditions of a ‘Virgin and Child’, ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘King Melchior Sailing to the Holy Land’.  

“Historical accuracy is not the point; the point is to see Jesus as the Savior of your own people, as incarnated very close to you, and relevant to life today”. 
Victoria Emily Jones 

Victoria Emily Jones also notes that, to illustrate the truth that “Jesus Christ was born for all people of all times”, Christians around the world, including during the Renaissance, often depicted him “as coming into their own culture, in the present time”. This realisation also provides one way to search for images of the nativity more relevant to our own cultures and time. Jones has made this a particular feature of her independent research on Christianity and the arts.  

Noting that “the center of Christianity has shifted”, being “no longer in the West”, she suggests that, if we survey the Christian art being produced today, we will see that “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the settings they inhabit, have a much different look”. Mary may be “dressed in a sari or a hanbok”, Jesus “wrapped in buffalo skin, or silk” and, instead of oxen and asses, we may “see lizards and kangaroos”. As she writes, “Historical accuracy is not the point; the point is to see Jesus as the Savior of your own people, as incarnated very close to you, and relevant to life today”. Accordingly, she has provided online two series of contextualised images of the Nativity painted within the last century with each work bringing “Jesus into a different place, in order to emphasize the universality of his birth”.   

Additionally, she also made use of a meditation I had written, which has as its refrain the plea “Come, Lord Jesus, come”, to create an Advent series of images and reflections exploring “what it meant for Jesus to be born of woman—coming as seed and fetus and birthed son”. Again, in her selection of images, she took “special care to select images by artists from around the world, not just the West, and ones that go beyond the familiar fare”. As a result, in ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come’, there are images of “the Holy Spirit depositing the divine seed into Mary’s womb; Mary with a baby bump, and then with midwives; an outback birth with kangaroos, emus, and lizards in attendance; Jesus as a Filipino slum dweller; and Quaker history married to Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom”. 

Her hope is that “these images fill you with wonder and holy desire—to know Christ more and to live into the kingdom he inaugurated two thousand-plus years ago from a Bethlehem manger”. She quotes S. D. Gordon’s “succinct summary of the Incarnation” - Jesus coming into this world as both God and human being - “Jesus was God spelling Himself out in language humanity could understand” in order to suggest that these images “celebrate the transcendent God made immanent, accessible” and “celebrate his new name: Emmanuel, God-with-us”. 

Whether you are looking to continue the tradition of sending Christmas cards through the post or will be sending digital greetings to family and friends, looking for, creating or commissioning nativity images that depict Jesus coming in your culture and your time continues to offer a significant way of showing the wonder of the incarnation to others. And, if you do so, while being entirely contemporary, you will also be firmly rooted in art history and church tradition.   

 

Explore more nativity art

Victoria Emily Jones has curated two collections of nativity art.: 2011 collection, and 2015 collection

She has also compiled an Advent Slideshow and Devotional for Art & Theology.

Visit BAME Anglicans' Paintings of the Nativity From Around the World

Article
Culture
Culture at Christmas
4 min read

It really is a wonderful life

Jon Kuhrt gives his three reasons why everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas.

Jon Kuhrt is CEO of Hope into Action, a homelessness charity. He is a former government adviser on how faith groups address rough sleeping.

A man stands one side of a bank counter while others, on the other side, look hopefully at him.

In my view,  It’s a Wonderful Life is not the best Christmas film ever. It is simply the best film ever, full stop. 

Released in 1946, the film focuses on the life of a man called George Bailey who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls. As a young man, George intends to “shake off the dust of this crumby little town” and get away to see the world and achieve great things. Yet through tragedy and his own sense of responsibility, he ends up spending his entire life in Bedford Falls running the building cooperative that his late father established. 

He sacrifices a lot. He ends up giving the college money he has saved to his younger brother so he can go to university instead of him. During the depression he and his new wife give their honeymoon funds to keep the Building & Loan bank going. All the time he battles against the richest and most ruthless businessman in town, Henry Potter, who is determined to build his business empire at everyone else’s expense. 

The film focuses on a Christmas Eve where George stands accused of fraud and faces scandal and jail. It’s all too much for him – the lost dreams, the feeling of insignificance and the heavy burdens he has carried for so long – crash in on him. Drunk and alone, he finds himself on a bridge, wishing he had never been born and preparing to commit suicide. 

Yet at this lowest ebb, salvation comes. Through the visit of an angel, George is enabled to see what would have happened if he had never lived. He sees the impact that his life has had on so many people and on the whole town. He realises what a wonderful life he has had. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true.

So why is it such a great film? 

I love this film so much that, rather embarrassingly, I bought the DVD of it for my best friend two Christmases in a row. The main reason is because it has given me inspiration in my life and work. 

Why? I think it’s for the following three reasons. 

It’s realistic about the hardship of life. Mainly due to the final scene many now perceive it as quite a sentimental film, but when it was released, it was not popular because it was considered too dark. It’s because the film depicts the struggles that many ordinary people face – such as debt, low self-esteem and feelings of insignificance. 

Also, in the character of Henry Potter, it sharply criticises the greed and self-interest of money-makers who don’t care about people. Henry Potter acts within the law but does not care about how people are affected by his money making. Profit overrides everything else. 

In standing up to Potter, George Bailey is ‘sticking it to the Man’ and this is costly and tough. The renewal of community does not come without resistance against the powerful forces of greed and self-interest. 

It shows that how we live does make a difference to the world. George Bailey’s life makes a massive difference to his town. Through unglamorous dedication he helps hundreds of people escape Potter’s slum housing and own their own homes. His bravery and leadership builds up his community and offers dignity and hope to others. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true – we can make a difference if we have courage and commitment. George Bailey’s life shows the importance of how we live and the choices we make – we will invest simply in profits or will we invest in people? 

But the key thing is that we will never really know the difference we are making. It’s a mystery beyond what we can grasp. We cannot avoid the need to have faith. 

It’s about the love and grace of God. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life commences with George’s friends and family saying prayers for him because they know he is in trouble. And at the end of the film, with their prayers answered, together all of George’s friends sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism.

It’s significant that the film starts with prayers and then ends with a hymn – because essentially, it’s all about grace, redemption and salvation. 

Too often words like this simply sound like religious jargon – as if they just refer to ‘getting into heaven when we die.’ But this is a damaging misunderstanding. Salvation is needed now – people are desperate in the face of meaninglessness, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. Also, people need redeeming from lives of greed and selfishness. Jesus meets people in these needs – he both comforts those who are disturbed – and also disturbs those who are comfortable. 

God’s love and grace comes to us in the midst of real issues. This is the core message of Christmas: that God became human, in history. He came to earth to share the real struggles that humanity faces and to conquer them with his redeeming love. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism. We know how damaged the world and its people are. But whether you are Christian or not, we all need inspiration, encouragement and hope to make a difference. And this is where It’s a Wonderful Life works a treat.