The Art of Christmas

Our parents conspire to make us believe in Father Christmas; reindeer footprints by the fire place, stockings mysteriously filled.    But the loss of that belief, the joining of the conspiracy. is itself a Christmas ritual,  a symbol of moving out of childhood innocence into knowing adulthood.

Le Gui et le Houx, Noel dans l’imagerie popular,  a small but perfectly formed Christmas exhibition in the Musee d’art et d’histoire in the city of Montbéliard in France,  provokes this thought, and others.  In Mistletoe and Holly, curator Aurelie Voltz picked an eclectic  set of Christmas images from the massive graphic art collection of the MuCEM in Marseilles, recently relocated from Paris.

Take, for example, this  vision of the Christ child  appearing in the fire place, bearing gifts.  The child seems bemused, benignly looking down on the Christmas festivities.

Montbeliard Noel exposition

Noel, 1878, in Le Journal illustre; Collections du MuCEM, Marseille

It ought to be Santa that’s come down the chimney, but pagan and Christian celebration is here rather sweetly entwined, in Le Journal illustré on 1 January 1878; unless its creator was casting a skeptical eye over indulgent celebrations of the child in the lowly cattle shed.

In 1951, in a very different spirit,  in the square in front of Dijon Cathedral, Father Christmas was burnt in front of 250 children.  The incident caused a sensation across France, with descriptions of his white beard going up in flames.   “For us Christians, Christmas should remain the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ,” the organisers said in a communique.   It came amid rising concern, from  both Catholic and Protestant clergy, that in homes and in shops, the Christian message was being supplanted by Père Noël, a ‘usurper and heretic’.

By contrast in the United States, in 1957, press reports emerged of a Father Christmas school, where students were taught both how to behave in proper jolly fashion with young children, but also to deliver presents dangling from a helicopter.

.Without drumming some tedious anti-commercial message home, the exhibition – in this small but historic city in the Franche-Comté region, nestled against the Swiss border –  explores the world before the adoption of the universal, red-robed, white-bearded Santa, whose popularity Voltz attributes to Coca Cola in the 1930s.   Her images include one of the “Loto du Papa”, of a bearded man  in blue coat with red trim who comes bearing gifts but with his other hand bearing the ominous birch branches behind his back.

Noel Montbeliard

Loto du Papa Noël, early 20th Century lithograph, Collections du MuCEM

The exhibition ranges from early puppet cut-outs, to exploring the use  of Santa Claus for commercial purposes, particularly  post-war lotteries but also for selling beer, and how the evolving Christmas rituals were portrayed.

“What I aimed to show is the contrast between the supposed / expected “timelessness” of Father Christmas through legends, rituals, etc. and our society which changes all the time and gives new rules to Christmas, new representations, new celebrations,” Voltz said.

Montbeliard Christmas MuCEM

Pere Noël à découper, late 19th-early 20th century, chromolithograph on paper, Collections du MuCEM, Marseille

Irt tracks the spread of Christmas, and Father Christmas, in the popular imagination; the Christmas fir, an historic symbol of survival and renewal in the depths of winter, was popularized  in Germany and the United States at the end of the 18th Century, spreading to Britain in the 19th Century.    The red baubles an allusion, apparently, to the apples of the “tree of life” of Adam and Eve.

While there was an ancient tradition of spreading abundance, Christimas gifts came carried by figures that varied by country and often region:  Saint Nicolas, Santa Claus, the Christkindel, Père Noël, or even the terrifying Hans Trapp, the bane of bad children, who in Alsace folklore accompanied St Nicolas.

The city of Montbeliard has its own Mother Christmas, Tante Airie, a benign peasant woman dating back to the 15th Century.    Only later did homogenisation and commercialisation settle on the red-coated,  white bearded gentleman carried by reindeer, with the lighted Christmas tree, ribboned presents, mistletoe and holly essential parts of the mix for celebrating Christ’s birth with an entirely different myth set.

From the city’s own collection, the exhibition includes Santa boldly quaffing a glass of a local ‘bonne bière’.

Montbéliard, Noël

Père noël sochaux_Collections musées de Montbéliard

But it closes with this powerful image from Lebanon, dated back to the early 1980s; it shows the dreadful aftermath of the civil war, wishing Merry Christmas all the same.    It would be sadly appropriate to see a similar message from Aleppo today.   My poor pictures, and poor French, do not do the show justice, but it is a clever and original idea that would be worthy of revisiting in Christmas futures in a larger setting.

Montbeliard Noël Christmas exposition

Le Liban vous dit joyeux Noël quand-meme