A Christmas message

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

What do our Christmas cards say about us? Do you choose a cheery robin, a religious scene in stained glass or a snowy winter’s landscape? And do you vary your choice depending on the intended recipient? These days, many people have taken to sending e-cards, or no cards at all. To me, that’s a sad illustration of the decline of one of the great Christmas traditions for which, as with crackers and decorated trees, we must thank the Victorians.
Our Archbishops of the past may not have sent out a humorous Father Christmas cartoon, but what do their Christmas cards say about them? In the Archdiocesan archives there is a selection of cards sent by Archbishop Downey in the 1930s. He was surprisingly modern in his use of mass media for communicating his message, and his message in the 1930s was principally about building a Cathedral.

So it should come as no surprise to find that his cards were co-opted for precisely that purpose. The first, from 1931, is a charcoal sketch by PJ Bond based on a well-known painting of the originally conceived massive structure. Archbishop Downey hadn’t needed to work very hard to persuade Edwin Lutyens to come up with a grandiose vision for a new Cathedral to replace the pro Cathedral of St Nicholas, a darkly Gothic Victorian creation. And it was the architect himself who designed the other Christmas cards that survive in the archives. These both exhibit architectural draughtsmanship of elegance and simplicity. In 1936 a Nativity scene adorns an altar-piece. The design incorporates the Cathedral flag (also designed by Lutyens), and because that involved printing in blue and gold, the blue to represent to waves that associate the Archdiocese with Liverpool, the gold for the ‘Christ the King’ monogram, these colours were used in other details to present a satisfying harmony in the image.

Perhaps that also made it an expensive production, as the following year’s card uses no colours. The Archbishop’s coat of arms is more prominent, above a swaddled baby Jesus inside a decorated circle. The accompanying messages are conventional, wishing the recipient a ‘holy and happy Christmas’; the ‘prosperous New Year’ seems to have been dropped as the Great Depression began to bite. But the cards of course say much more than that, as all our cards do: the medium is the message, for those of us who still send them.