Rediscovering Two Catholic Christmas Artists of the 20th Century
A look back at Christmas classics from Lauren Ford and James Lewicki.
Earlier this month, two books I ordered for our girls through our county library’s inter-library loan system arrived, appropriately weathered and frayed, pages yellowed and musty. Both books still had the date-due card on the first page: one was last stamped in 2003; the other’s last due date was Dec. 18, 1970. We have to be extra gentle with these old books, I advised. Then we turned the pages and dove into the artwork of Lauren Ford and James Lewicki.
Lauren Ford’s Christmas Book, words and pictures by Lauren Ford with scripture quotes from the Gospel of St. Luke, was published in 1963 by Dodd, Mead & Company in New York. Ford dedicates the book to Samuel Golden and Dorothy Bryan, “who both wanted this book to be realized.” Titles of other Lauren Ford books include The Little Book About God (1934), The Ageless Story (winner of a 1940 Caldecott Honor), and Our Lady’s Book (1962).
Fans of classic movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age might recognize Lauren Ford as portrayed in the comedy-drama Come to the Stable (1949), starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm. In the movie, the artist Miss Potts (Elsa Lanchester) is the character based on Ford. Two sisters seek to build a hospital named after St. Jude in the New England town of Bethlehem after they were inspired to do so by the beauty of a Nativity postcard designed by Miss Potts. Loretta Young’s Sr. Margaret is based on the real-life Mother (later Abbess) Benedict Duss, founder of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. It was based on an original story by Clare Boothe Luce, President Eisenhower’s Ambassador to Italy.
Lauren Ford’s Christmas Book opens with this preamble, titled “The Coming of Christ”:
I have been asked to tell the story of Christmas in my own way and I should love to because it is the most wonderful story there is, but I should much rather leave the main telling to Saint Luke and I shall ramble on with the thoughts that run through my mind as I make the pictures.
What follows are pages of delightful, wintry Nativity artwork sketched by Ford, interspersed with Scriptural quotes of the Birth of Jesus and the artist’s own reflections on the events she depicts. Ford writes:
The angels were announcing the coming of Him Who spoke of peace all through His life. ‘Peace be unto you,’ He offers over and over. This was His Christmas gift — that ‘Peace which the world cannot give. It is not a peace from one nation to another, but an inner peace. This He gives us. All we need is to want it.
* * * * * * *
In 1956, Simon and Schuster published an oversized book for little ones, The Golden Book of Christmas Tales: Legends From Many Lands, with text by Lillian Lewicki and paintings by James Lewicki. The artist was a well-regarded illustrator for LIFE, the popular magazine founded by Clare Boothe Luce’s husband, H.R. Luce. The Golden Book of Christmas Tales is a decidedly Catholic perspective on the holiday, as author Lillian Lewicki adapts apocryphal and traditional stories of the Holy Family on the first Christmas.
For instance, the first tale, “Cherry Tree,” is about Mary desiring to pick some cherries on the way to Bethlehem. The tree bends itself towards the Blessed Virgin making it easy for her to pluck the fruit. In the painting, Joseph drops to his knee at the remarkable sight. Another tale, “The Robin,” is about a little bird that flaps its wings, fanning the coals of the dying fire while the Holy Family tries to sleep. The robin’s work pays off, but the fire reddens the robin’s breast — hence the name, robin redbreast.
Another story is “The Fly and The Spider,” which protected the baby Jesus from Herod’s soldiers. This tale was the inspiration for Raymond Arroyo’s The Spider That Saved Christmas. Saints such as Christopher, Nicholas and Francis of Assisi appear. The story of Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury Thorn is recounted, when he planted his hawthorn staff into the ground atop Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury, England, where it grew and bloomed each year on Christmas Eve. In tales of Old England, King Arthur’s tomb is said to be in the adjacent cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey.
Then there is the Italian legend of La Befana, the old woman who refused the Three Wise Men shelter and regretted her rudeness ever since. Each Epiphany Eve, Befana delivers gifts to children in her enduring quest to locate the Wise Men she turned away, and the Christ Child they sought.
The last tale is from Sweden, “The Christmas Rose,” where in the Forest of Göinge a white flower blooms in December — the Christmas Rose. In days of old, the forest snow and ice melted on midnight every Christmas Eve, revealing a carpet of green, punctuated with the colors and scent of berries and flowers, the air filled with birdsong and animal life. A motley crew that included an abbot, a family of robbers, and a lay brother witnessed the miracle. The lay brother, however, thought the miracle the work of the devil, and said as much. The forest immediately darkened, the silence of bleakness and cold enveloping the group. The old abbot freezes. Sorrowful, the repentant brother, releasing his lack of faith, takes the remaining white bulbs from the abbot’s gnarled, frozen fingers and plants them in the garden of the abbot’s cloister. What blossomed are the annual white flowers that continue to bloom every year — the Christmas Rose.
These stories will delight readers of all ages, and give hope and inspiration in passing on old stories of our faith, when in the city of David a Savior is born, Christ the Lord (cf. Luke 2:11).