Christmas Eve is traditionally the focus of a German Christmas, with the dressing of the Christmas tree, the opening of the presents and the evening feast.
Adolph von Menzel, Weinachten: Bescherung im Familienkreis
For Pevsner, however, Christmas Eve was rarely a high point in his youth. His family, as non-observant Jews, did mark the festival. ‘Extremely opulent presents at Christmas and birthdays, that is how I built my library,’ he commented later. But the celebrations were rarely conventional. For years in his teens the family took their early evening meal at the teetotal vegetarian restaurant that his mother had set up under the influence of entomologist and sexologist August Forel – 70 pfennigs a head – before going back to the house for their presents.
Nor was Pevsner proof against the traditional Christmas family row. Christmas Eve in 1922 was the occasion for one of his worst fights with Lola, not long after they had become formally engaged. They had been to a party and were walking home for the present-giving ceremony. She was by nature far less inhibited than he was; her dancing had embarrassed him and he told her so. ’Quite unexpectedly she hits me… a really nasty box on the ears. I don’t know what to do; I’m defeated by this. She is immediately full of shame and regret, but what’s the use?… I have been hit in public.’
- Pevsner, Lola and daughter Uta in 1925
Carl Larsson, Julaftonen (Der Heilige Abend)/ Holy Night
In the 1920s, with small children, he was able to enjoy more traditional family Christmases. But in 1933, under Hitler’s Act for the Restoration of a Professional [ie. non-Jewish] Civil Service, he lost his teaching post in Gottingen and found himself in November in Birmingham, looking in vain for a permanent job and bitterly homesick. ‘In another month I will again be among Germans …. I am looking forward beyond all reason to seeing you, just sitting peacefully beside you, and to the children and to the Gewandhaus, and to the German-speaking and the warmth.’
That Christmas was spent together, but it was a snatched time, and all too soon Pevsner had to go back to a climate in England which ranged from froideur to outright hostility towards Germans. It was an attitude that made him feel defensive and more German than ever, and the following Christmas he abandoned his plans to bring his sons the toy soldiers he had promised them. ‘All I’d get would be Tommies,’ he wrote furiously.
By Christmas 1939, Pevsner’s father had died and his mother was living in a Judenwohnung, an apartment block designated under Nazi law specifically for Jews. Shortly after Christmas 1941, she took her own life, having been informed that she was to be transported to a German concentration camp in occupied Poland. Uta Pevsner, meanwhile, was living with Lola’s sister Marianne in Germany, having been stranded there at the outbreak of war without a visa to return to England. Her position- sheltered among Marianne’s children, who had only one Jewish grandparent – became increasingly precarious. Described as their maid, she was exempted from the more gruelling forms of war work; but around December 1944, she was denounced by a neighbour, and only escaped disaster through the decision of a local official to turn a blind eye. That Christmas their tree was decorated with lametta made from strips cut from a bombed barrage balloon.
After such traumas, with the family reunited after the war, Christmas became extremely important in the Pevsner household as a a way to exorcise the past and – for Lola, who never stopped missing her native land – a means of continuing German traditions. She insisted on an unvarying sequence of events. An expedition to the National Gallery and inspection of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square was followed by the seasonal service for poor children in the church of St Martin in the Fields and, finally, supper at Lyons’ Corner House on the Strand. One room in the family home became the Christmas room, locked until the tree was decorated, and people sang carols as they entered; each person had their own pile of presents on a table or stool.
Lola’s Christmas present list ran to sixty names. After her death, Pevsner did his best to keep up her routines. He kept tiny, detailed notes in the back of his diary as prompts, but would never find present giving easy. For his grandchildren he could be inspired. On his travels, he would look out for items that might suit. In New York it was trooper hats; an American friend also remembered being sent two pieces of string, carefully measured, as a guide to the purchasing of postmen’s caps. But with adults he was less sure of touch. One of his secretaries remarked, ‘For a man whom one would have thought knew about good taste …. Once he came in and said, “Mary, I couldn’t think what to buy you, I hope you will find this useful.” It was a celery jug.’ For another, it was trays for the oven.
D.G. Rossetti, sketch of William Morris as King David, entitled 'The Seed of David'. Photo: Birmingham City Art Gallery
Flemish Angel lectern, All Saints, Landbeach. Photo: Rev. Steve Day
Christmas cards were easier. He had them specially printed and took trouble in selecting the illustrations. Once it was a sketch of his hero William Morris, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another time a gryphon by William de Morgan. In 1961 he used a photograph of Swaziland from the tour of South Africa which he and Lola had made the previous summer, followed the next year by a painting of their road in Hampstead, by Kenneth Rowntree. More often than not, however, the Christmas card was a clue to the progress of The Buildings of England – a funerary monument by Thomas Rickman from Buckden in Bedfordshire: the fan vaulting from Hartwell Church in Buckinghamshire (annotated gloomily ‘now alas collapsed’): the hogback tombstones at Brompton, North Riding of Yorkshire; the Flemish Angel which forms part of the lectern in the church of All Saints, Landbeach, Cambridgeshire. One particularly fine one included a spoof BoE entry with a line drawing of ‘The Collegiate Church of St Aldate and St Ursula, Candleford Magna’ from the Barsetshire volume, ‘(now out of print)’.
His Christmas card was always the first to come,’ one of his pupils remembered. ‘I think he wrote them all and posted them on December 1st – they always arrived either on the 2nd or the 3rd – always a very nice card – but just ‘Nikolaus’, not ‘to Denis’ or ‘from Nikolaus’ or ‘Cheers’ or anything. We always knew Christmas was round the corner.’