Paul Johnson

Season’s greetings

Christmas cards past, present and yet to come

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My recollections of Christmas Past are dominated by the fabrication of the family card. It was one of my father’s principles that Christmas was a family event and that any cards sent out should be created within the family. It was quite wrong to buy one. Happily he was an artist of the old-fashioned sort, skilled at all the various methods of reproduction — etching and drypoint, engraving, photogravure, lithography and various abstruse methods of printmaking. Indeed he taught them at his art school. Lithography was his favourite because it had a softness and fidelity to nature and avoided the harsh line of the other reproductive processes.

We sent out around 150 cards each year, and by the end of November my father had drawn the master card on the stone. This was almost invariably a version of the crib scene, always in black and white, and had to be painted. Watercolour was applied by hand, and thus done by one of my two sisters, Clare and Elfride. From the age of five, I was allowed to help, under close supervision. Various bits of the design had to be done in gold or silver, and this was difficult work I was not allowed to do. The whole house was turned upside down during this process, and resembled a monastic scriptorium in the Middle Ages, with intent figures bent over their work, surrounded by pots of paint and cards in various stages of completion. All had to be finished for 17 December, when the cards were put into their envelopes and addressed, then carried in triumph to the big red postbox near the clock tower of the park, regarded as a ‘safe’ postbox. These cards, when complete, were real works of art, and I wonder if any have survived. The recipients must be long dead.

I often feel guilty that I have not carried on this tradition. I paint individual birthday cards, chiefly for children but also for a number for grown-ups. I must do about 50 a year, each adapted to the taste or character of the person who receives them. I am not capable of doing lithographs or using any other process for mass production. So we have to buy them. There are a number of places which specialise in good reproductions, my favourite being Holy Trinity Church at the bottom of Sloane Street, near the Square. What I like are the unusual rather than the familiar, the products of pernickety medieval or Renaissance artists who refuse to fit into the regular archetypes but stick to the general scheme.

Thus I have one this year showing Mary in bed under a beautiful scarlet bedspread, reading a book, while Joseph minds the baby. This has a modern touch, does it not? For Mary is clearly the focus of the picture, arousing the attention of the two kings, while Joseph and the Christ-child are tucked away in a corner, mere appendages. What book is she reading? Impossible to tell, but thick and formidable. No pictures. Evidently a learned lady, anxious to get her husband accustomed to role-reversal. This audacious treatment is from a Flemish 15th-century Book of Hours in the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge. But the artist is unknown.

I also like a view of the three kings which shows one of them raising his crown, a round red dome with a white frill, in a stately salute. Actually one of the three is not a king but a queen, with long golden hair and a black velvet hat under her crown. Three musicians accompany them, and the artist is one of the German Nazarenes, Friedrich Overbeck. A third choice is a 15th-century orchestra surrounding the Virgin, a harpist, a viol-player, a lutist and an angel strumming vigorously on an organ, while Jesus conducts them from his mother’s lap. Then from the Prado is a Velázquez, with the red-haired Christ-child sitting bolt upright, while the kings hand over their gifts. This, you can see, is a real baby, a beautiful creature who casts a critical eye over his visitors, as if to say, ‘What do I want with gold, frankincense and myrrh? Bring me something I can play with.’

A generation ago Americans started the practice of sending photographs of their families as Christmas cards, and it has spread across the Atlantic. I am not sure about this convention. Some families are so handsome they clamour to be celebrated. Others are more humdrum. To parade your children thus is to invite comments and comparisons. It is a declaration of philoprogenitive war. ‘Can you beat this for glamour?’ the card seems to say. There is also the assumption that recipients want a permanent record of your children, and are expected to keep the card.

That is certainly the meaning behind the cards top politicians are sending out. Prime ministers like to show themselves smiling on the threshold of No. 10. A president greets you from the Oval Office or the Rose Garden. The message is: ‘This is my home.’ At one time I had quite a collection of these things. FDR began this tradition, followed by Churchill who sometimes varied the formula with a reproduction of one of his paintings. Mr Attlee didn’t bother: he was content with a Transport House Santa. But Eden used to display his handsome features from an easy chair in Downing Street. So did Supermac. Even Ted Heath bared his teeth in a seasonal snarl. I’m told that Harry Truman’s Christmas cards are a rarity; he was the first, I think, to show himself with his wife, Bess, and his singing daughter. Mr Nixon sent you a White House card plus, if you were regarded as worth cultivating, a cheerful wreath to hang on your front door. I have had a Wild West card from Mr Reagan and a square-jawed one from George W. Bush. Mr Clinton favoured one with Mrs Clinton, making a seasonal point. Harold Wilson always had his pipe at the ready, and sometimes his golden Labrador. What was its name? Paddy, I think. I put all these celebrity cards in a box until it got full and was thrown away in a New Year clearout. Foolish, perhaps. What would I give for a similar collection of the cards Queen Victoria’s prime ministers sent her? But perhaps that was not the custom in those days. I’ve had the odd one from other transient rulers. Colonel Nasser, for instance. Wasn’t he a Muslim, you ask? Yes: but he put ‘Seasonal Greetings’, which is safe. General Franco too sent out cards, as did General Perón. Ditto David Ben-Gurion — another Seasonal Greetings man. Did Stalin send out cards? Or Mao? And what about Hitler? That was probably before the time rulers engaged in these PR stunts. Otherwise we’d have heard from Chips Channon’s diary: ‘Adolf H’s card arrived this morning. A yule log again.’

So let’s have some variations on the gifts the three wise men bring. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are old hat. How about Sovereign Bonds, Brent Crude and Hedge Funds? Keep cards up to date!