Christmas is a time steeped in tradition, smothered by commercial interests, preserved by sentimentality and – somewhere among the noise – inspired by one of the central stories of the Christian faith.
Countless people strive to tell this story to the world and express its messages through art.
Some write songs and poems, others paint nativity scenes or depict the tale on stained-glass windows. Many create plays to re-enact the story in the Gospel, and some even make films.
For many people, Christian or not, the mystery and magic of the Christmas story lends itself to artistic expression. It’s a story rich in themes, symbolism and hope.
Christina Rowntree, Artfull Faith Coordinator at the Centre for Theology and Ministry (CTM), believes the story touches on universal themes that pique human interest.
“The Christmas story is so rich in human drama. It’s about a baby and a family, which we can relate to; it’s about rich and poor, heaven and earth coming together, the contrast between the humble shepherds and the wealthy wise kings,” she said.
“It includes the terrible drama of Herod’s decree and the slaughter of the innocents. “In that story is the historic context of political power. Even when we sanitise it, we know that’s part of the story and the flight into Egypt. So we have this story of hope that’s full of drama and a great journey. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ quest. It becomes a journey motif for us (as Christians) – our story of growth and transformation.”
Ms Rowntree names the human capacity for tenderness and the ‘maternal embrace’ as themes highlighted in the story of Jesus’ birth – a story softened and romanticised, used to evoke tender emotions and the ‘holy awe’ that surrounds Christmas.
But in recent times the story has also been used to tell a more confronting story – that of refugees, since Jesus and a pregnant Mary were denied refuge on their journey and forced to take shelter in a stable.
“You can evoke compassion and distress for refugees – using the story that way, the focus is on those who are turned away in times of need. The Christmas story is consoling and reassuring when we look at images of the mother and beautifully sleeping child. But if we only ever replay that story, it loses its power to transform us. It’s very comfortable and I’m not sure that’s what the story is for.”
The December image in the 2014 Giving is Living calendar (pictured) is a painting by artist and Croydon Uniting Church member Odette Commins.
When Ms Commins’ niece sent her Georges de La Tour’s The Adoration of the Shepherds for Christmas, she loved it so much she said she “had to” paint it.
“I was attracted to the humbleness of the painting – that is the way Jesus was born. As a Christian it inspired me, the sheer simplicity of this depiction,” Ms Commins said.
“I think we forget that Jesus was born in a manger, in a stable. I like a painting which has a message to tell, particularly when it tells it simply,” she said.
“I read about Georges de La Tour before I began painting it – it’s important to me to paint something because I like the meaning behind it.
“When it was finished, I sent copies to friends for Christmas and then sent it in to be used in the Giving is Living calendar. I wanted to remind people about Jesus’ birth – and the real, first Christmas,” Ms Commins said.
For the last 15 years, Brunswick Uniting Church have held a Christmas Eve pageant. They began by using scripted plays but, in the last six years, they have written it themselves.
Saide Cameron is a Brunswick UC congregation member heavily involved in the pageant.
“I’ve been involved at varying levels from the start. It’s always had a quirky element or something fun or different to engage people,” Ms Cameron said.
“As a group we brainstormed ideas about the shape of the story. It’s been an intentionally collaborative process from there to the working script.”
This year, approximately 30 people from the congregation are involved in putting on the pageant.
“The setting is a contemporary Brunswick lounge room. Two teenagers find a Christmas present under the tree which says ‘open tonight’. As they pull out the items in the box – a star, a sheep, an angel – each symbol prompts the telling of different parts of the story. It involves multimedia too, with video clips of angels and sheep.
“At the end, the lounge room is transformed into a stable. We’ve got a young asylum seeker family from our congregation who will be the holy family. It’s going to be really beautiful.”
As well as multimedia, the performance includes dance, music and a lot of props.
“One of the things we wanted to do with the play is give expression of who we are as a community, in the heart of Brunswick, sharing this message of hope with the wider community. That’s at the core of it.
“We also want to counter the commercialism and say, ‘There’s magic here and we want to share it’. The magic is in the experience of hope in the story.”
Each year the pageant audience packs out the church building, including those whose only connection to the congregation is attending the event each year – usually with their kids.
“We invite people to come dressed up and we have a box of costumes available on the night too. At the end of the play, the kids who are dressed up can join the tableau at the end and be in the photo. They love it,” Ms Cameron said.
Jane Woollard, Brunswick UC congregation member and director of this year’s pageant, was co-director of the Wakefield Mystery Plays at St Paul’s cathedral in 1989 and 1990.
“I’ve lifted some aspects of the medieval Mystery Plays, because the language is so beautiful and the shepherds speak, not just the Wise Kings. Each of the shepherds has a humble gift to bring,” she said.
“Brunswick UC’s play finishes with the penultimate moment of the shepherds and the wise ones making their offering to the Christ child.
“It finishes on quite a formal and heightened note as we move into the central mystery of the Christmas story.”