The predominance of Christian influence on the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the United States leads me to call this the holiday season, as though there is no other time of the year that warrants this title. I’m sure a few other religions would take exception. I don’t mean to offend anyone. I acknowledge these faiths have their own seasons of celebration and reverence that are as valid to them as Christmas is to American Christians. The focus of this article is how this particular series of holidays has its own artistic expression that ranges from deeply sentimental, full of meaning, to irreverent pokes at traditions and family.
I’m certain most of us could use a lot less of the commercialized side of Christmas. It’s just obscene that business and shopping have become so important that stores are open on Thanksgiving to get a jump on Black Friday, the aptly named dark day when customers have been known to stampede each other to get their hands on marked-down objects in planned short supply. Interestingly, though, some of the most memorable and touching visual art involves well-known products or scenes of opulence for kids supposedly experiencing the “magic” of Christmas. I’m hearkening back to my own youth when I saw painted prints of my quintessential Santa Claus having a Coca-Cola in a living room that could have been mine. Another familiar image would be that of the child playing with a new Lionel train set on the floor amidst the family, the tree and lots of other opened presents.
Christmas parades are a show of beautifully assembled lights in a lot of cases, but commercial art is in the forefront in some. Disney’s cartoon characters make appearances at least at Disneyland or Disney World. The Thanksgiving Day Parade sponsored by Macy’s is spectacular with the floats and the stylistically impressive balloons that pitch Spongebob Squarepants, Spider Man and a host of others. The guest of honor is, of course, Santa. He’s a work of art in himself.
HEARTH AND HOME
The holidays inspire a number of artistic images to lift our spirits through the short days and long nights. Snowy scenes of old cars parked in front of a house with lighted windows at twilight. An open sleigh dashing through the snow. Stockings hung by the chimney. This type of homespun art has been around for my entire life. It goes back much farther, as you might guess. I believe this striking illustration below is from the 1890s.
Ancient art connected with Christmas is remarkable. Florentine painter Giotto created a cycle of frescoes between 1303 and 1305 that include a nativity scene. The nativity scene was understandably central to the theme of Christmas, judging from the number of ancient paintings that depict it. There were some notable deviations from the norm, however. Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli in 1500 was bright and cheery in a scene with green grass, trees and many angels on the ground, on the roof of the stable and flying around in the air. One of my favorites is from 1566, done by Pieter Bruegel. It’s called The Census at Bethlehem. It shows a busy village scene with many visitors going to the building where they have to report.
OTHER FORMS OF CHRISTMAS ART
Music, whether just recorded or performed on the stage or on the screen, is fundamental to conveying the spirit of Christmas. Some of it is strictly devotional. These revered songs are not played that much in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The lighter fare, such as Jingle Bell Rock, Here Comes Santa Claus and Winter Wonderland are consumed easily without much thought. Come Christmas Eve, the big guns are brought out by those broadcasting the holiday music. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful provide the serious, reverent mood the devout would prefer. Quality music, substantial lyrics make up these songs.
Surveying the landscape of holiday art has to include The Nutcracker Suite. Seeing this ballet is solid tradition and the music has become synonymous with Christmas music. Literature has made its contribution with The Christmas Carol. Films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story show us the magic of the season in ways not directly associated with the story in the Bible.
The arts are part of Christmas because they usually express the key aspects of it. Beyond the birth of Jesus are the messages he delivered about how he wants us to live…with love for others and in the joy of a giving spirit. May we keep these in our hearts and minds during the season and for the entire year.