Christmas cards were my window to another world

The child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world.

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Growing up, I lived in a house without art: no picture books on the shelves, no visits to museums, no posters on the bedroom wall. That this was as much a blessing as a lack did not become clear until later: the child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world. There was no art gallery in Cowdenbeath, however, and our occasional visits to Edinburgh were spent walking round the shops, staring at things we couldn’t afford, before unpacking a picnic lunch in Princes Street Gardens, sometimes in sunshine, though more often in a fine, rather greasy drizzle.

The one exception to this monotony was Christmas. Everyone sent out cards in those days and, although the majority were of badly photographed robins and religious scenes, every now and then something came through the mail that startled me with its vibrancy and beauty. Though I didn’t think of it then as art (or, worse, as “culture”), that fortnight’s span leading up to Christmas introduced me to Brueghel and Hendrick Avercamp, to Joseph Farquharson and the Limbourg brothers – and every Twelfth Night, when the decorations came down and the cards on mantelpiece were about to be consigned to the fire, I would rescue a handful of the best pictures and hide them away in my room. Later, I added Japanese bridges in deep snow and, during a half-hearted correspondence with an American “pen pal”, a precious snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer.

Hardly anyone sends Christmas cards these days. Though I accept the environmental and financial logic of this, it doesn’t stop me feeling slightly cheated when the mail comes around. Clearly my childhood self was drawn to colour and to the delicacy of light reflected on snow but I think he also recognised that something else was going on, something that wasn’t obvious on the surface. That something is not easy to name or describe. Yes, it has to do with an acceptance of what, when many of the paintings were made, was a hard, even fatal season, a time of abstinence and bone-deep cold and, when the snow set in hard, dangerous isolation. But it also reveals a recognition of the magical process that happens invisibly at the turn of the year, a miraculous closing down of almost everything under the cover of ice and snow so that the earth can be renewed.

Snow isn’t just pretty. It also cleanses our world and our senses, not just of the soot and grime of a Fife mining town but also of a kind of weary familiarity, a taken-for-granted quality to which our eyes are all too susceptible. When the thaw comes, we are surprised again (if we are lucky) by forms and colours that we had almost forgotten. The first seedlings to uncurl from chill spring loam remind us that this rare planet’s abundant life, against which all the odds were heaped, is (to paraphrase the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén) a matter of law, rather than mere accident.

This year, I am collecting new images, mostly by the German expressionists whose work I first found at the Brücke Museum in Dahlem: artists such as Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who were active in the early years of the 20th century. Influenced partly by the Japanese woodcut tradition, they made winter scenes that are highly economical and, at the same time, immensely powerful. It is work that seems almost to pause time, while the year turns and that stillest of days, the winter solstice, renews our ties to the earth – ties that are both as binding as gravity and as mysteriously liberating as the intuition that Wallace Stevens had, gazing into the white origin of the snowy world, of “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014