December 13, 2012, by Kathryn Steenson

Christmas in the Collections

What image symbolises Christmas to you? Do you think of choirs of angels round a manger, or Father Christmas leaving presents under a tree decorated with baubles? Perhaps you take inspiration from the natural world and would choose a robin or mistletoe.

References to Christmas are scattered throughout the collections at Manuscripts and Special Collections. This beautiful image of the Nativity comes from the Wollaton Antiphonal (c.1430). Many illuminated manuscripts of this period had historiated initials, where the first letter of a passage contained decorative figures explaining the narrative.  Antiphonals are liturgical books, containing the words and music to the sung portions of religious services. This illumination is taken from a page of music to be sung at Christmas, and shows the Virgin Mary wrapped in a blue mantle with her arms outstretched to take the baby Jesus. An ox and an ass alongside her represent the humble stable, which is slightly at odds with the lavish clothes and bedding depicted!

The unknown creators of the Nativity scene would not have understood the context of this second image, a hand-coloured illustration produced over 400 years later. Christmas trees are a relatively modern tradition in Britain, introduced via the Royal family’s German heritage. They only became widespread in the early 19th century. Christmas trees were decorated with fruit, paper ornaments and – rather alarmingly – lit candles, as shown in this illustration from ‘A Story About Christmas in the Seventeenth Century’ by Mrs Percy [Jane] Sinnett (London 1846). It was a tale of a fictional wealthy Silesian family’s experience during The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Even at this early date, it is probable that Christmas trees were a familiar but not universal part of festivities in upper-class households in Central Europe.

These are just a couple of images from our collections that feature on our range of Christmas cards. They are available to buy for a modest price in the Reading Room at Kings Meadow Campus.

Manuscripts and Special Collections will be closing on Friday 21st December 2012 and reopening on Wednesday 2nd January 2013. We would like to wish all our readers a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Posted in From the collections