Ah, Christmas, that time of the year when our propensity to create and perpetuate traditions is most strongly manifested. We buy and eat the same food, watch the same films and TV programmes, sing the same songs, tell the same jokes, and rehash the same arguments.
I haven’t heard the one this year about councils calling Christmas ‘Winterfest’ – maybe that has finally died a death (or maybe I’m just not paying attention), but this morning The Telegraph raised the perennial question of why so few Christmas cards depict ‘Christian themes’.
Research conducted by Bible Society found that out of 5706 Christmas card designs sold in stores on a typical high street, only 66 “could be classed as religious”.
Why aren’t more cards with nativity scenes being stocked? A spokesperson from Sainsburys explained that the range of cards they stock “reflect[s] what our customers want to buy from us.”
To an extent they’re right. People want to buy cards that make them – and the cards’ recipients – smile. Christmas is a time when we search for hope, joy, love, laughter, relationship, fun and ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all men’. Look at the cards you’ve received and sent this year. Which ones look the most joyful, the most hopeful, the most fun? I’d be willing to bet they aren’t the nativity scenes, particularly the ‘traditional’ ones.
Have you ever seen a traditional nativity card in which Mary looks remotely happy about the fact that she’s just given birth to the promised Messiah, the longed-for hope of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth? She usually looks mournful, and the shepherds and magi bow in respectful awe.
Traditional paintings of the Madonna and Child tend to show a Mary who is awed by the responsibility she’s been given, and often allude to the death her son will die three decades later. The look on her face is meant to remind us of the awesome holiness of the child, and this is an important part of the message, but it is only a part. Where is the joyful praise of ‘Glory to God in the Highest’? Where the ‘Great joy to all the people’?
If Mary looks sad, and all the faces look, at first glance, at least, downcast and sorrowful, why would anyone who doesn’t already know and believe the truth want that hanging around the streamers, sparkly lights and brightly-coloured wrappings?
Danny Webster is right to say, in the Telegraph piece, that “cards that ignore the basis of the Christmas story encourage us to have peace without the prince of peace and joy without the giver of joy”, but the fault is not with the shops or with the (secular) card makers. It lies, surely, with the fact that Christians have failed to make the connection in the public mind between Christ and peace, Christ and joy. It lies, too, with the Christian artists who know the truth, who believe it, who have the skills to express the joy, wonder and delight that is more fully found in Jesus than in any tipsy robin or rotund Santa, and who don’t send designs for joyful, faith-filled Christmas cards to the card companies.
If you are an artist and are doing that but having your designs rejected, well done, keep up the good work. Make sure your designs are excellent, so they are accepted because they’re the best, not just because they’ll be a nod to the ‘religious fringe’, and make sure people are praying for you as you submit your designs. The design I’ve used to illustrate this post is by the very talented illustrator Jason Ramasami, from his new book Life Changer. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I’m trying to convince him to attempt to get it marketed as a Christmas card next year. I love how it combines the awe and the joy. Worship and amazement and celebration all in one. Brilliant.
For the rest of us, while we wait for your cards to flood the market (and just as much afterwards), we’ll have to find other ways to let our friends, families and neighbours know that this is a time to celebrate the joyful gift of the King of kings and Lord of lords being given to us for our salvation. We may not be able to express it in a card just yet, but I’m not sure that was ever what Christ intended anyway. If our lives throughout the year don’t demonstrate the ‘joy to the world’ of which we sing in December, I don’t think even a shopful of nativity scenes will do it.
This post first appeared on ThinkTheology.