Sunday 15 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 3) Cutting Out Christmas

Here’s a more personal Christmas decoration that is not too late to make. It’s a Christmas Heart.

This is a popular decoration in Denmark and northern Germany, and it is a famous gay Danish writer who made these hearts particularly popular in the 19th century. His name is Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875). He wrote many children’s stories that were well-loved in his lifetime, and still are today. The most famous of his stories is “The Little Mermaid”. Eight years ago I wrote about Hans Christian Andersen and his sexuality in my first Christmas series.

No-one is sure where and when the idea of making paper hearts for Christmas began. It may be just a local Danish tradition lost in the mists of time. It is probable that the technique of making the pleated hearts was influenced by a much older European-wide medieval tradition of making small figures out of straw or wicker.

The oldest surviving Christmas heart is one made by Hans Christian Andersen himself in 1860. It is housed in his museum in Odessa, Denmark. It’s unlikely that Hans invented the heart, and his example may not have been his first, nor used as a Christmas decoration. But it used the same technique to make as those hearts that have become popular on Christmas trees today.

If you’d like to make some Christmas hearts for your tree, or make one to give to a loved one, check out this video.
Andersen was a huge celebrity in Denmark, on a par with Charles Dickens in the UK. Its no wonder his Christmas paper hearts were popular among his many fans. But his hearts were a small part of an even bigger interest he had in another form of papercraft, psaligraphy.

Psaligraphy is the fancy name for paper cutting. Hans Christian Andersen always carried a pair of scissors with him, and whenever children stopped him and asked him to tell them a story he would be snipping away at a piece of paper. At the end of the tale he would hold up the paper to reveal a cut-out design which illustrated a part of his story.

Again, Andersen didn’t invent this art form. It had been known in ancient China but didn’t exist in Europe until the 1600s. Portrait silhouettes were very popular in the 170s and 1800s.

A lot of Andersen’s surviving psaligraphs – paper cuttings – went on display this time last year in a museum in Bremen. Andersen wrote in 1878 “Paper cutting is the prelude to writing”. He gave away most of his psaligraphs so it’s fortunate that there were enough to form an exhibition. There are some examples of Andersen’s various papercraft.

Having worked in museums and art galleries since from 1988 to 2005 I know how delicate pieces of papercraft such as those Andersen produced needed precise atmospheric monitoring. Temperature, humidity and even light levels needed to be just right to prevent deterioration.

For seven years I worked at the Nottingham Castle museum and art gallery. One of the big exhibitions I worked on was the major Andy Warhol exhibition in 2002. Warhol himself was fascinated by Hans Christian Andersen’s various papercraft. One of Warhol’s last pieces of work was inspired by Andersen’s psaligraphy and silhouettes.

In many department stores at Christmas you can see a variation of psaligraphy in the many tree decorations made of wooden silhouettes and cut-outs. The same cut-out technique was used to form the Christmas ident of one of the UK television channels in recent years.

So, maybe you could get out a pair of scissors and paper and have a go at cutting out some Christmas designs for yourself. Even paper snowflakes will brighten up any display. Or you can try your hand a making a traditional Danish paper heart like Hans Christian Andersen did.

Next Sunday, the last Advent Sunday before Christmas, we look at perhaps the most significant type of Christmas decoration in Christianity, the Nativity scene or presepio. We’ll learn of the controversy which arose when the official Vatican presepio was donated by an abbey that has been holding an annual lgbt procession since 1256 – the world’s oldest and longest continuously held Pride march?

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