Tag Archives: Christmas

The die is cast! Part IV

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, ad 800

(continued from the previous post) …in spite of the non-stop mayhem of Justinian’s rule he manages to achieve the ripe old age of 83 even surviving his beautiful young wife Theodora so the next emperor is his nephew Justin II then Tiberius then Maurice then Phocas who has Maurice and his whole family killed so you can guess Phocas is a pretty violent ruler and the eastern Byzantine Empire continues along the same lines for the next six or so centuries it’s run by despots and becomes a giant complicated overregulated corrupt slow-moving bureaucracy with a population attached so let’s switch back to the western half after all this is supposed to be a history of Western Civ okay since the 400s the Frankish Merovingian kings and Theodoric the Ostrogoth keep France, Italy, Germany & Spain running more or less the same way they had during the Empire one big unifying force is the Christian Church so as these kingdoms and duchies are turning into countries they have Christianity in common in France the Carolingian Dynasty gets started with Charles Martel who slaps down an Arab invasion next is his son Pepin and after him is Charlemagne—Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (as they’re calling themselves by now) from ad 800-814 Charlemagne rules over France, Spain, Italy, Germany, & Hungary and oversees a mini cultural renaissance (more about that in a minute)…

Whew! Time out. Let’s give Gibbon a rest here—after 4 Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® posts of Decline & Fall it may be possible that I’m losing the room. My goal at any rate was to make the jump from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. So here we are! Mission accomplished, gang!


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The new religion

The Roman Empire became so enormous that it was too huge for one emperor. The Empire got split into East and West. Rome was still the capital city of the western half. Byzantium became the capital city of the eastern half. Within both halves of the Empire was a growing movement, a new religion—people who worshiped Jesus Christ. This was a problem, because—just like the Egyptians and pharaoh—Romans were expected to worship their emperor as a god. Christians had to worship in secret. Whenever they were found, Christians were rounded up, punished and even executed in grisly spectacles at the Colosseum where they were put in an arena with abused, starved lions. People bought tickets to watch. Human beings can be horrible, gang.

https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-27/persecution-in-early-church-did-you-know.html (requires subscription)

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Merry Christmas!

Time toddled along and the Roman Empire got bigger. Forty-four years after Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by his senators, 31 years after Augustus’ navy beat Antony’s navy, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria and a royal decree had been issued throughout the Empire that everyone in it should be taxed…in an unfashionable province, in the sleepy hometown of a long-dead king, in a humble little house with barely enough extra room to squeeze unexpected guests in among the family livestock…a baby was born to a carpenter and his young wife.

This Baby was a promise from God. God would keep the covenant He made with His chosen people. God was giving us His only Son who would one day be sacrificed to pay for our sins. God knew that would happen, yet He still gave us Jesus—our Savior, our Messiah, the Christ. We’re forgiven no matter how bad we’ve been. Our Heavenly Father must really, really love us!

We here at Western Civ User’s Guide World Headquarters wish you all the peace and joy and hope of Christmas.


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Mid-century school kids

Here’s Ignatius Thistlewhite and his school chums from The Year Without a Santa ClausPhyllis McGinley wrote the story in the 1950s, so I liked the idea of keeping it set in that time.

Most people, when they think of that era associate it with early rock ‘n’ roll, greasers, big cars with fins, malt shops—the image cultivated by movies and tv like Grease, Happy Days, Hair Spray, American Graffiti & Back To The Future. I was born in the 1950s and started school in the early 60s, so I saw that time through a child’s eyes.  I wore the clothes I put on Ignatius: a red fur cap with ear flaps and red plaid woolen pants. I didn’t wear a necktie as Ignatius wears in the sketches; art director Anahid Hamparian showed good sense when she asked me to lose it.

The classroom is how I remember Allen Road Elementary School under the tutelage of Mrs Gurney, Miss Yaeger, Mrs. Bowen, Mrs. Haskins, Miss Nugent & Miss Corey (the art teacher)—I know I’ve left out some names.

The b&w photo of the school teacher with the bangs shows a costume and hairstyle that are probably closer to the 40s, but she just looks so much like the teachers I remember.  In the same shot is the back of a kid’s head that I found useful.

The perspective in my classroom illustration is clearly—what’s the word?—nuts.  The kids in the foreground would need to be standing in a hole.  But I wanted them down that low so that Ignatius could be that high.  I think the composition works, and that’s what’s important.  So there.

Warm light in a cool environment

Two scenes from The Year Without a Santa Claus—both show Santa in a neutral or cool-colored environment.  The bedroom is gray; the snowy night is gray and blue.  Close by Santa, however, is a warm orangey-yellow light source.

This is an old trick.  If you look at classic Nativity paintings (you may have one handy on a Christmas card), the artist will keep everything in the barn dark and/or neutral while the manger throws off warm light, illuminating Mary and Joseph.  The viewer will be attracted to the light source, where the artist wants you to look.

It’s not easy for children’s book illustrators to make backgrounds as dark as we would like, because often text needs to print over the background.

Color script for Santa

I’ve written before about color scripts—an idea that animators use to tell a movie’s story with color.  Here again is the color script I created for The Year Without a Santa Claus.  This is a longish book—40 pages instead of the usual 32.  The story starts out with Santa feeling low, follows him as he cancels toy production for the year, jumps to follow Ignatius Thistlewhite (the kid who saves the day), then returns to Santa.

The color script begins and ends with neutrals—black, white and grays.  The section showing the interiors of Santa’s workshop and house boasts warm colors—yellows, oranges, reds.  The section following Ignatius uses a lot of what I think of as 1950s colors—mint green, Naples yellow, dusty rose.

In all the neutrally toned scenes with Santa, he always has a small bit of warm color around him—like the bedside light when he wakes up or the blaze of light coming from his house as Santa takes off on his Christmas Eve ride.

Merry Christmas!

‘For yearly, newly, faithfully, truly, somehow Santa Claus ALWAYS COMES.’

Some seasonal sketches

Some outtakes from The Year Without a Santa Claus—the group of 6 crying kids was whittled down to three; the spots showing kids’ gifts to Santa were cut to make more room; the sleeping boy was replaced with the shot of two kids looking through a window at the blizzard outside.

School for Santas

This is Santa Claus’ busiest week, and since there’s only one Santa, he can’t be everywhere at once.  So what’s up with all the Santas you see in department stores and malls?  Two words: Santa’s helpers.

These guys help out during the Christmas season by dressing as Santa and representing him while the big man’s busy back at the North Pole.  It’s not as easy as it sounds—to be good at it you need training.  Luckily, there is a place Santa’s helpers can go to learn their trade.

My art school chum Charles Bergeman told me about his grandfather, Charles W. Howard who founded the Santa School (click on the book, then on the upper-right corner of the book to turn the pages).  I had no idea this school existed and was so happy to learn about it I had to tell you.

Entering Santa’s workshop

I took a cinematography class when I was a teenager, and one of the movies we studied was  The Bicycle Thieves. A poor man gets a job putting movie posters up around Rome, but his bicycle—without which he can’t put up the posters—is stolen.  The movie follows him as he tries to find the thieves.  In the very last shot, when the man is utterly lost and hopeless, the camera pulls up and back—higher and higher—so we look down on him as he grows smaller and smaller.  That shot delivers an emotional punch you couldn’t get any other way.

I find that camera angles are important when storyboarding a picture book.  Here is Santa Claus entering the workshop; he’s tired, oppressed, overwhelmed and not into the toy-making thing.  I think looking down on him is the best way to tell you how Santa feels at that moment.

Here is the thumbnail sketch, the tight sketch, the color sketch and the finished painting.  Color is another tool for storytelling.  You can see in the color sketch that I created a big oppressive gray-and-black frame to surround and bear down on Santa.  I isolated him by putting him in the door frame.  In spite of the workshop’s warm, happy colors, Santa is in his own small patch of cool blue.

The Year Without a Santa Claus was written in the 1950s so I included some toys from that time—like this Ruthie doll.

And yes, that is a pork-pie hat.