Glencairn Abbey Cards

Featured card of the day: Noël

Today’s featured card is C24 (English) / C25 (Irish), Noël

Here we have quite a different kind of card, apparently a rather non-religious one. There is no crib, no infant, no holy family, no shepherds, no magi; there is just the word “Noël” in unusual lettering, and some holly leaves and berries, on an abstract yellow background. Was Sr Paula catering here for people who would like to send a Glencairn card but don’t want anything too overtly “holy”?

Perhaps – but the card may not be quite as non-religious as it initially seems. It is certainly not in the same category as those which send “Winter Wishes” or celebrate “December holidays”. Noël is the French word for Christmas, which became popular in English in the nineteenth century particularly in carols and on Christmas cards. It is a definite reference to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Incarnation of the Word of God. How many of us can hear – or see – the word and not immediately think of the carol “The first Nowell…”, which is all about the angels and shepherds and the birth of the baby Jesus? And the large, strong, black letters make this the dominant feature of the card. So it is definitely a Christian message. In fact, just to say “Noël” alone, without any other text, is a kind of faith-statement. It says, “I believe in Christmas; I believe that Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the Son of God made flesh.”

The style of the letters is like the style used in the depiction of the Wise Men in the card we featured yesterday: each letter with two halves in different styles, playing on mirror images and the interplay of positive and negative, presence and absence. The lettering seems extraordinarily contemporary – it might almost have been computer-generated. But no, it came from Sr Paula’s hand in the 1970s.

The holly leaves in the top left of the card also use this style: one half of each leaf is depicted by a solid outline, the other just suggested by short strokes. The two dots of the umlaut over the letter “e” are mirrored in the dots used for the holly berries.

Branches, foliage and berries of holly are typically used as a Christmas decoration, at least in some parts of the world. But holly is not a religious symbol. So why is it used here? And why not use red and green, the actual colours of holly and the traditional colours used on Christmas cards – why use yellow? And what does that abstract yellow symbolize anyway?

Sr Paula has not left us any record of her intention, except what we see in the card itself. Here is one possible interpretation: the three holly leaves, taken together, may possibly represent a star in the sky (or God? three = Trinity?) with the diagonal line formed by the central stem of the lower right holly leaf pointing downward to the “Noël” text, just as so many other of Sr Paula’s cards include a star whose rays point to the infant.

The fluid yellow background then represents the world, or the universe. Other of Sr Paula’s later cards (not reprinted this year) include a cosmic dimension – Mary holding Christ over a globe-like symbol, for instance. The idea of the birth of Christ as an event of universal significance was something that she was incorporating into her designs at this time. Here, from the holly-star (the divinity), emanates the power of “Noël”, the strong, definite force which comes into the indefinite, amorphous universe.

The message inside the card reads: Joyous Greetings to you at Christmas and a very happy New year (English); Beannachtaí na Nollag agus na hAthbhliana (Irish).

It is available in both English and Irish versions.

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