December 7, 2020 - 3:09pm

Today, what you buy is who you are. For those who’ve travelled so far beyond God that Advent is just drinking and tinsel, there’s no shortage of faith-free seasonal tat to splurge on in December. But for design-conscious types with a vestigial relationship to Christianity — a kind of religious coccyx, if you like — how to shop the ironically pre-post-Christian vibe presents more of a challenge.

Industrial designer Sebastian Bergne has one solution: expensive Christian minimalism. His online shop charges £200 for a set of eight rectangles of painted beech in an untreated wooden box, with each block representing one of the figures in the Nativity. (The 2020 edition is now sold out, though you can pre-order for next year). The idea, presumably, is that we’re so familiar with the elements of a traditional Nativity scene, whether on Christmas cards or in innumerable other representations, that these rectangular placeholders are instantly recognisable simply by their colour. Emilie Voirin’s even more brutally abstract Nativity takes this a step further again, rejecting even the colour-coding in favour of plain wooden blocks with text printed on them.

Can you tell what it is yet? Credit: Sebastian Bergne

Looking at these, I find myself wondering about a world populated by adults grown up in households with a Nativity represented only by painted oblongs. I doubt theirs would be a culture with a shared recognition of the elements of the archetypal Nativity as our relatively recently post-Christian one. In this sense, the minimalist Nativity adds nothing: it treats the collective Christian cultural memory less like something held in trust than like a non-renewable resource that can be mined.

The more figurative Nativities of religious iconography can be schmaltzy at times, but who can find any kind of schmaltzy emotional resonance in painted oblongs? Instead, Bergne’s and Voirin’s sets operate purely at the level of abstraction, conceding nothing to piety or emotion. The implication is that this is the plainest possible placeholder: whatever you’re going to feel about the Nativity is your business alone.

On one reading, then, minimalist Nativities are characteristically 21st century, capering ironically over millennia of mouldering traditions while shying violently away from the responsibility of adding anything new and sincere to the pile. But perhaps there’s a more optimistic take.

It’s just possible that minimalist Nativity sets represent the stubborn refusal, even among hipsters, to permit a total extinguishing of Christian observance. As someone who’s tried both, I can attest to the fact that at least in mainstream secular society, outing oneself as even mildly Christian carries considerably greater risk of social penalty than coming out as LGBT. Other faiths generally get more of a pass but being Christian is really, really uncool.

In defence of minimalist Nativities, then, despite the heavy ironic throat-clearing, at least they do reference religious tradition. And after all, iconoclasm has a long Christian history too. It may be a faint hope but it’s just possible that for some, ironic hipster Christianity might be a staging-post not toward but away from a bleak secular Christmas composed solely of Santa and Amazon. Deck the halls, indeed.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.