The Artistic Value of Christmas Decorations

The Nativity Set and the Christmas Card — Do They Still Have Artistic Value?

The nativity set and the Christmas card are skillful depictions of the Holy Night and other imagery, but today, unlike in the past, they have been reduced to being mere commercial pieces.

Mass production and popularization of Christmas decorations over time caused this shift in perspective. With the industrial age and the drastic changes in social structure, Christmas entered the homes of the commoners and decorations and ornaments were accessible to everybody and not looked at as art anymore. Today, even when the art of making artifacts and ornaments is still practiced, the products are considered more commercial and less artistic.

The History of the Nativity Set

The artistic cribs set up in churches, houses and businesses during Christmas represent the Holy Night when Christ was born. The tradition of creating nativity sets is traced back to St. Francis of Assisi, who recreated the nativity scene using people and animals for the first time in 1223. A little over three centuries later, in the 1550s, representations of the nativity scene began appearing in churches. Small parish churches and chapels began to set up the crib in the following decades.

In the 1600s, mountain farmers in Austria began to carve nativity scenes in wood. The Christmas crib and the Holy Family thus gradually made their way into many private and wealthy families. Nativity scenes became an important craft, and Christmas cribs entered townhouses and farmsteads.

The first cribs only included the Holy Family; baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with the ox and the donkey lying in the crib. With time the nativity sets became smaller. The three wise kings, shepherds with their sheep and other figures, like an announcing angel and the Christmas star, were added to the crib much later in the nineteenth century.

Today, cribs are a staple part of Christmas decor. Homes, churches, offices, schools and other institutions set up and adorn cribs during Christmas. Artisans make traditional and modern cribs from several materials and in various designs. Creating the figures for the nativity scene involves much artistic skill. Today, artisans use wood, plastic, paper, ceramic, chalk, metal, wax, Plasticine, glass, fabric, straw and stone to craft nativity figurines. More than art, cribs are considered decorations and products of commercial value, with more realistic sets fetching higher prices.

The History of the Christmas Card

In 1843 Henry Cole commissioned Calcott Horsley to create cards. The former was a wealthy and well-known businessman who wanted the cards made so he could give them to his patrons and family during the Christmas season as a token of affection and merry wishes. Giving and receiving cards became a Christmas tradition, which in the early years, were made by artists who painted and printed these cards for sale in London. Later, in the 1880s United States, Christmas cards began to be produced commercially on a larger scale.

When one compares the early cards to contemporary renditions, the artistic quality of the former stands out, and the images depicted on these cards might come as a shock. In Victorian times, when Christmas cards were popular in high society, the images were of bats, dead robins,  a bear attacking a man, two small children bullied by a giant wasp, and many other unusual but skillful depictions by artists. Then, the cards were seen as respectable forms of art created specifically for the receiver at an important time of the year. The Christmas card that depicts a dead Robin is such an example where the dark humor of the person who commissioned the work, or perhaps that of the artist who created it, is evident. The inscription, May yours be a Joyful Christmas, accompanies the skillful depiction of a dead robin, highlighting the sender’s joke that the receiver's Christmas cannot get much worse than that of the poor dead robin.

Artists created these Christmas cards by etching, wood engraving, linoleum cutting, and lithography. Some used the photo process, an innovative method for this period, to create images on cards.

Today, Christmas cards depict biblical scenes, Angels or Santa Claus, and we can go into most stores up to Christmas to buy Christmas cards advertised. Furthermore, today we can produce digital Christmas cards wishing a Merry Christmas online. Despite such changes in the manufacture of Christmas cards from their origins of being respected and unique artistic tokens of friendship and love, the Christmas cards we share today still encompass the values of Christmas as much as they did in the past.

Let’s Pause to Appreciate

It is said that poetry and art are everywhere. This is no less true for Christmas. The colours that work together, the stars, the tree decorations and even wrapping paper are all appealing because behind the commercialization, they all have artistic elements and qualities. Impeccable craftsmanship and artistic skill work behind the scenes, making the Christmas season an aesthetic marvel.

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