The Christmas Story in Arts and Books

The York Mystery Plays

The York Mystery Plays include a medieval nativity – a pre-cursor to the chaotic productions most people will remember from Primary School. They are a cycle of Middle-English pageants which detail Biblical events. They lasted so long that the time of day was in co-ordination with their position in the Bible – starting with Genesis and the creation story at sunrise, and ending with the Last Judgement at sunset. They were performed in York until 1569, but the Chester Mystery Plays still take place every five years with the most recent production in 2013.

The Annunciation – Fra Angelico

In San Marco Cathedral, Florence, as you go up the stairs into the dormitories of the monks, there is a sharp turn and immediately in front of you is this majestic fresco of Gabriel and the Virgin Mary; one of the best depictions of the first part of the Christmas story. The topic was incredibly fashionable in the Renaissance, though most position Mary leaning away from the Angel, in fear and apprehension. These paintings were filled with symbolic objects such as Mary’s weaving and lilies. The soft muted palate and the curiosity in Mary’s expression set it apart from many other annunciation scenes. This painting is far simpler; there is no external ornamentation in the room. Mary instead leans towards Gabriel, willingly accepting of her God’s wishes. Its calmness reflects the quietness and the ascetic nature of monastery itself where monks still live today.

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity – John Milton

Milton wrote this poem on Christmas Day 1629. In it, he celebrates the way in which Christmas is celebrated in the same way every year and the joy and light bought to earth by the Baby Jesus and his “far-beaming blaze of majesty” Mostly Milton is known for his strict, puritanical leanings but this poem sets him beautifully apart from the Parliamentarians who wished to ban Christmas. 

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The Adoration of the Magi – Morris & Co.

The Adoration of the Magi is the name traditionally given to the Nativity of Jesus in art, in which the three Magi, represented as three Kings, present Jesus with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. There have been numerous artistic representations of the scene dating back to the 4th Century. In 1886 the rector of Exeter College, Oxford, commissioned William Morris to make a tapestry to hang in their chapel. Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most prolific painters of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, delivered a preliminary sketch of the tapestry. The tapestry was woven ten times, and one of them can still be found in the chapel of Exeter College.

Bebe (The Nativity) – Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin was a post-impressionist, recognised for his bold and experimental use of colour. He was born in France, but his parents were from Peru. The culture and imagery of the country, and of the other countries he visited, would later influence his art. A trip to Tahiti to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional” was particularly important to the development of his style. This can be seen in his realisation of the nativity scene, in which the focus falls not on the baby Jesus, but on a Tahitian newborn in the forefront of the picture. The message, perhaps, is a comment on popular religion. Babies are being born all the time, each one equally special.

Santa – Coca Cola

Santa has been seen in Coke adverts since the 1920s. The brand has helped shape our impression of Santa as a jovial, plump and generous old man. Before he was often thin and scrooge like. Coke used the iconography of St Nicholas who was often portrayed in long red robes to inform their images.

Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kirsty McColl

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Often cited the ‘best Christmas song of all time’ this is a poetic and tragic Christmas story. It begins in the drunk tank, where an old man’s song prompts the singer to reminisce about a more hopeful Christmas past which seems to be an American Dream story of two lovers, possibly Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine: ‘I can see a better time / When all our dreams come true’. The lyrics detail the progression from hope to misery as the lovers are consumed by alcohol and heroin. It is possibly based on the novel of the same name by J. P. Donleavy, about the emptiness that belies the hollow dream of a new life in New York City. The ultimate message, and the one which makes it Christmassy, is of sharing life with someone else: ‘Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you.’

The Invisible Christmas Tree – Tracy Emin

Tradition dictates that you take down your Christmas trees on twelfth night, the 5th of January. But in 2002 the Tate had no need to do so. Every year they commission an artist to design a Christmas tree for Tate Britain. Tracy Emin decided to send her Christmas tree to Lighthouse West London, an HIV and Aids charity. In the main entrance hall, free of pine needles and baubles, visitors were instead left with a notice which encouraged them to send donations to the charity. This made the point that accumulation of material possessions should not motivate Christmas giving. Sometimes modern art is conceptual and irritating, this was the opposite: conceptual and worthwhile.