My identity has always come from what I create rather than what I consume, so for me the especial delight of Christmas has always been not so much getting loot as showing off. Every year since I was a little girl, I have looked forward to a feast of indulgence of singing Christmas carols, and sending (and more recently selling) home-made Christmas cards. I’m not sure this approach is any more altruistic than an orgy of Black Friday telly-buying, but at least it has a lighter environmental footprint.
To enlist you in my Christmas indulgence I’ve put together six selections of my Christmas card designs. You can feed my greed for adulation by buying them and sending them to your friends. And in case you think this is a cunning plan to raise funds to buy giant tellies, I might add that all my spending money just now is going straight to another indulgent yet I hope innocent project: to refurbish and reopen a field centre in a very beautiful corner of Scotland (which I have written about here).
I told you it was all about singing. How far is it to Bethlehem?, In dulci jubilo, I heard the bells, In the bleak midwinter, and I sing the birth: some familiar, some strange, all commissioned by friends who wanted their favourite carol, except How far is it to Bethlehem? which I chose myself, as an adventure into the innocence of Christmas and an excuse to illustrate a great chorus of biodiversity. Buy ten — or buy five.
This set were commissioned by my religious friend Dan over the course of five years. I used a far more spare, ‘modern’ style of calligraphy and illumination which seemed to me to suit the pure, conceptual nature of his theological themes, quite unlike the muddle of narratives and cultures in my own head. I print them on to bold, bright card though, all different, and make them sparkle with handpainted white and gold details. Buy ten — or buy five.
My other regular commissioners have been my friend Anthony and his dog Charlie. Anthony managed not only to cover Christmas sacred and secular, from the Magi crossing the desert to Father Christmas stuck in the chimney, but also a range of artistic styles and card formats, ending with a grand finale: an inside out card in the style of a Hergé cartoon. It’s one of my favourite designs of all. There’s lots to make you laugh in all of them. Buy a dozen — or at least a half dozen.
All except one (Sing Choirs) of this selection were designs I did as my own Christmas cards. They are all printed in black and white with colour added by hand afterwards, which makes the colour less rich, but more vibrant, being ‘live’. There’s John Donne, Walter Scott, Kit Smart, and one of the Hebrew Psalms: and I believe the person who commissioned Sing Choirs was thinking not of the author of those words, but of David Willcocks. There are also polar bears, mice, spiders, herb-robert, and wise men on bicycles. My Christmas never stays conceptual or anthropocentric for long. Buy ten — or, go on, buy five.
These cards, from Mary singing ‘he hath put down the mighty from their seat’, to the English Puritans banning the celebration of Christmas, to Regency Episcopalians reinstating it in dour, Presbyterian Edinburgh, to Longfellow lyricising about the bells of peace, all represent the radical nature of Christmas: people’s attempt to clear away the clutter and wrapping paper, and grasp its pure, true core. The results, as you see, are very different, but the belief in the real meaning of Christmas goes on and is an endless source of poetry, philosophy, and indeed politics. Buy ten to send — or just buy five and keep ’em.
The recent ‘Gothic Season’ on the BBC coincided with my study, as a professional historian, of the Victorian Gothic Revival Architect George Gilbert Scott. The programmes on Art of the Gothic by Andrew Graham-Dixon were a bit of a Damascus road moment for me, and made me reassess my creative life quite differently. I’ve never thought of myself as a Goth: I have a healthy aversion to death and the colour black, and I’m a sceptical academic who loves evidence-based arguments and strategies. Yet the essence of Gothic, as a questioning of the rational humanist Enlightenment is at the heart of everything I do. I rebel against the lack of paradox, the bleak heartlessness, and, most of all, the anthropocentrism of science, history, sociology, evangelical Christianity and humanism. In my art — as in the Christmas story — angels and animals keep breaking in on the human world of sense. The clean lines of words are entangled with abundant foliage. My Christmas is, most of all, a Gothic Christmas. Buy ten — or five.