Christmas and the Interior


Edwin Heathcote



More than any other time, Christmas focuses the mind on the home and the hearth. Partly because it feels right - the domestic is the default setting of the holiday, but partly because that is how we have been conditioned. In literature, film, TV and advertising, Christmas has become the symbol of domestic bliss or of its absence. In Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol (the book that effectively instigated our version of the holiday), Ebenezer Scrooge’s large, miserable house becomes the embodiment of his meanness and lack of humanity, a home for a lost soul. Dickens describes it as ‘ a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.  It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices.  The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands.  The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.’ 

When Marley’s ghost manifests himself, it is on the lion-head doorknocker, engraining himself in the fabric of a house that once belonged to him. Scrooge’s house is contrasted with the humanity, the steam, warmth and cooking smells of Bob Cratchit’s measly home and the festive luxury of his nephew Harry’s home, a place of fun and games. Scrooge’s house is dark (‘Darkness’ writes Dickens, ‘is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.’). But when he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, his bedroom is transformed. ‘The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Scrooge's time, or Marley's, or for many and many a winter season gone.’ 

And that, symbolically at least, is what we try to do to our homes at Christmas, to banish the atmosphere of the everyday in favour of an enhanced domesticity. The story of the Christmas tree is familiar, but it is worth remembering that the evergreen is an extremely symbolic element, a living thing sacrificed to bless the house in a reminder of a tradition which is truly amongst the oldest memories in the home – trees and boughs are still installed on a roof in a ceremony to celebrate ‘topping out’ or the completion of a roof in construction, the weatherproofing of a house. The bringing in of a Christmas tree is an equivalent act but it is also something which signifies the end of winter, a piece of green which has survived intact and the candles, the glittering balls and, more recently, the fairy lights upon it, are the celebration of the light coming anew to the world outside. The star at its top is not only a hint at the star over Bethlehem but also of the sun itself, crowing the whole event. In fact the Nativity, and the little scenes recreated with manger and figures, serves to reinforce the domestic nature of Christmas through its narrative of homelessness, of Christ having been born in a stable. 

Virtually every successful Christmas staple since Dickens has treated the house and home as an embodiment of an idea of well-being, and its disturbance as an aberration - a signifier of all that can go wrong. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), we are deeply unsettled by James Stewart’s everyman George Bailey’s discomfort at home, riled by the noise, the music and the baluster globe which comes off in his hand every time he ascends the stairs, he shouts and suffers, effectively, a suicidal nervous breakdown. Of course everything is saved by an angel (as he saves the angel from drowning) and all is made good again in the house at the end, beside the Christmas tree. In the Home Alone, 8-year-old Kevin is accidentally left behind to defend a house against intruders and the house itself becomes a protagonist, a weapon used against the bungling burglars but again, the unsettling notion of a child alone at Christmas is embodied in the family home itself, huge and empty. In Miracle on 34th Street the connection is made even clearer when only child of a single mother, 6-year-old Susan (Natalie Wood in the 1947 original), challenges Kris Kringle to make her believe he really is Santa Claus by asking for a family and a house. At the end she is given exactly that, a house to precisely match the one she drew. The house becomes, once again, the embodiment of family and domestic happiness. That immediate Post War era seemed, perhaps unsurprisingly, to bring out a certain sentimentality in the idea of Christmas as an idealised family holiday. 

Miracle on 34th St, with its drunken fake Santa at the root of the real father Christmas’s problems (foreshadowing Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa), brings out a little of the strange symbolism of the Santa story. An old man descending the chimney to bring gifts? It’s an almost sinister mythology (one played upon so brilliantly by Tim Burton in A Nightmare before Christmas which conflates Halloween horror with Christmas cheer) and one which has odd roots. St Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, was Greek, but born in modern-day Turkey (though his remains were stolen and taken to Bari). One legend recites a story of a famine in which a butcher has murdered three young boys to make ham and stored them in a barrel, from where they are rescued and resurrected by St Nicholas. Another version has him taking pity on three young girls who, lacking a dowry, are likely to be forced into prostitution and St Nicholas anonymously gives them gifts of gold coins, dropped into freshly washed stockings left hanging on the window to dry. A further version yet has him clambering onto a roof so as not to be detected and dropping gold into the embers in the hearth. 

In much of Europe St Nicholas still comes on his feast day, 6th December, and deposits gifts of sweets, nuts, tangerines and gold chocolate coins in shoes or boots left by the window. Elsewhere it is the hearth that remains the focus. The fire inside is delightful, with all those roasting chestnuts, but it is the symbolism of warmth and light which makes it so central. Thus the mantelpiece becomes the domain of Christmas cards and swags of green, a combo in which the primeval forest is both celebrated (holly, ivy, mistletoe and paper) and transformed (the log or coal fire). The mantelpiece is a kind of shrine even in normal times, stacked with family photos, candles and mementoes, it is a domestic altar framing the sacred fire which once represented the goddess Vesta who was responsible both for hearth and home. At Christmas that role is amplified as both mantelpiece and fire become enhanced symbols of domestic comfort and familial closeness. It is also, oddly, slightly subverted by sexual connotations. The odd symbolism of a Santa descending the chimney (listen to Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby - ‘Hurry down the chimney tonight’) reminds us of the festival as a turning point in the cycle of the seasons, the return of fertility. 

If the idea of an (albeit benevolent) intruder is a little unsettling, another odd facet of the feast is a tendency to miniaturise. Whether in the reduced figures of a nativity scene, the shrunken toys and baubles suspended from a Christmas tree or topping a Christmas cake, or in the atrophied scale of decorations for a dolls house, the tiny pictures at the windows of an Advent calendar or the miniature tin toys or Christmas scenes which tend to light up creating tiny illuminated, snow-covered, hyper-Dickensian townscapes, there is a sense of wanting to create miniature Christmas worlds. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 Santa Claus is still a ‘jolly old elf’ his reindeer ‘tiny’, not the rotund giant we think of – who bears more resemblance to Dickens’ Dionysian ghost of Christmas Present. Perhaps this miniaturising is a way of creating a cosy, controlled, ideally domestic world. Like Christmas decorations themselves, it is about a transformation, an illumination, the retrieving of half-forgotten things from boxes in dark, dusty attics and cupboards and bringing them out to sparkle. The miniaturisation is an attempt to create the ideal Christmas world we have come to expect from an overwhelming mythology of literature, film and advertising. And it is easier to create at a tiny scale when everything can be perfect. The tree, with its decorations, its candles or fairy-lights and the baubles twinkling like stars in the sky is an attempted ideal world of tamed nature and religion framed in a perfect picture of domesticity, a rare, luxurious moment of harmony between man, the forests, the building and the cosmos. 



Originally published in The Meaning of Home. (London: Frances Lincoln, 2012)



CHRISTMAS LIGHTS by Edwin Heathcote
URBAN DETECTIVE by Richard Wentworth