Western Christmas traditions are rich and varied, and many that we take for granted are surprisingly recent innovations. To celebrate the major feast and festival of the year, I bring three articles with selections of paintings: this looks at events on the day and evening prior to Christmas Day, what’s normally known as Christmas Eve. Tomorrow’s article views Christmas Day with scenes of the Nativity, and that on Boxing Day shows some Adorations.
Wherever you go in the world, the feast of Christmas is now associated with decorated trees, which turns out to be a relatively recent tradition, at least outside Germany where they originated and became popular during the nineteenth century. That compares with Nativity Scenes, plays and cribs which had originated in the fourteenth century and quickly spread across Europe.
In the early nineteenth century, following marriages between German royalty and those of other European nations, Christmas trees started to appear across Europe. They reached Britain by 1800, Denmark a few years later, and Austria in 1816. They became more generally popular as a result of Queen Victoria’s fondness for them, and from the 1840s swept Europe followed by North America.
The Nordic countries had a plentiful supply. Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s finely detailed Cutting Christmas Trees from 1885 shows the men and boys of Danish families preparing some for their homes.
Other artists saw the merits of depictions of children responding to the tree, and the opportunity to play with light. Fellow Dane, and member of the Skagen group of Impressionists, Viggo Johansen painted this wonderfully loose study for a finished painting of Christmas Eve in 1891.
Because of an earlier family tragedy, Johansen was banned from dancing around the family Christmas tree when he was a child. When he came to have his own family, he went out of his way to ensure that his six children weren’t so deprived. In 1891, he bought one of the largest Christmas trees in Copenhagen, and painted his family celebrating the feast around it. That took him about four months, during which the tree shed most of its needles, and his family had to keep attaching freshly cut branches to it to maintain its appearance. Sad to say, his finished painting isn’t available in a suitable image, and in any case I prefer his more painterly study.
Traditionally, Christmas has been a time to think of those less fortunate than ourselves, which is exactly what Jacek Malczewski does in his Christmas Eve in Siberia from 1892. The men here are Polish, deported from their native country and imprisoned in the extreme cold and remoteness of Siberia. Although there’s a steaming samovar at the end of the table, they have only had soup and a wedge of bread for their seasonal feast. Following the Polish Uprising in 1863, at least 18,000 were ‘exiled’ to Siberia, many of whom never returned.
Those Polish men – and women – could only have dreamed of the unwilling subject of Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s undated Christmas Time – Here’s The Gobbler!
For many, the night before Christmas is the high point of feasting and celebration. Carl Larsson’s Christmas Eve from 1904 shows his large extended family gathering in grand style, with a huge turkey, a roaring fire, and a cat under the table, trying to get into the party.
Those who couldn’t go off to the woods to cut their own Christmas trees bought them in one of the seasonal markets which were set up in most towns, as shown in Carl Wenzel Zajicek’s watercolour of the Christmas Market in Am Hof Vienna from 1908.
Christmas has also been a time for more formal charity. Rather than giving one another expensive presents, many have given to the poor and needy.
The younger Carl Oesterley captured history in his painting of Queen Marie of Hanover Giving Presents to the Poor and Needy (1908). Princess Marie of Saxe-Altenburg, as I believe she is more properly known, lived between 1818-1907. The artist’s father, Carl Oesterley senior, had been court painter to her family, but in 1866 her father’s kingdom was annexed by Prussia. The Princess married King George V of England, and her family never relinquished the throne.
Princess Marie is shown as a saintly figure, bathed in light as the poor and needy – and a sick boy in the bed behind her – worship her grace. She also has at least three Christmas trees in the background, which seems a little excessive even for royalty.
Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth brings together what has since become a cliché in his sentimental group of Children by the Christmas Tree from about 1912.
On Christmas Eve at the end of 1913, almost exactly two years after his severe stroke, Lovis Corinth painted this delightful scene of their two young children enjoying their Christmas Decorations. Charlotte, the artist’s wife, is seen at the left edge, disguised as Father Christmas. Their son Thomas stands with his back to the viewer in front of a nativity scene close to his mother. Daughter Wilhelmine is at the right edge, inspecting one of the presents.
In 1915, when the whole of Europe was engulfed by the Great War, Wojciech Kossak painted this Soldiers’ Christmas. The decorations on the small Christmas tree in the foreground echo the uniforms in their greyness. In the sky, a shellburst acts as a metaphor for the guiding star which led the Magi to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but below that celestial light these infantry soldiers fight on.
In Nikolai Astrup’s woodcut print of his family’s Christmas Eve at Sandalstrand from 1918, his wife and young son have fallen asleep exhausted, amid traditional Norwegian decorations, including a well-decked tree.
Alphonse Mucha’s Christmas in America from 1919 is another painting with a story behind it. That year, Mucha had realised his great ambition of exhibiting his series of twenty paintings depicting the history of the Slav peoples, his Slavic Epic, in Prague, which had only the previous year become the capital of newly independent Czechoslovakia.
Mucha’s decade of work on this series had been supported by the American Charles Crane, celebrated by this painting. Tragically, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Mucha was badly persecuted, and died on 14 July 1939 in Prague, just before the start of the Second World War.
The Norwegian Naturalist Christian Krohg uses a Christmas tree to tell the story in his Seamstress’s Christmas Eve from 1921. A young woman is in her garret bed-sit, where she has been toiling long hours at her sewing machine. An affluent couple – a relative or employer perhaps – has just arrived to give the young woman a Christmas tree, a large wicker basket of presents, and more. Maybe that young woman can still be saved from the fate brought on by her sweated labour at the sewing machine, and her inevitable decline towards prostitution – perhaps an unusual way to spend Christmas Eve.
Now it’s time to go off and prepare the welcome for Santa, including his mince pies, and a little something for his reindeer, before you go out to Midnight Mass/Communion, to welcome in Christmas Day. Or maybe just doze quietly on the sofa during another rerun of The Snowman.