Only 24 hours till the big day is here. Most of us have finished our shopping, finished our party-going, and are just about finished with being cheerful. The time has now come to settle back with loved ones, and let the true meaning of the holiday wash over us.
It’s time to put “Christo” back in Christmas.
The man whose birth we celebrate tomorrow came from humble beginnings, only to emerge later in life as the transformative fabric artist we all know. Even if we don’t worship him as a God, virtually everyone acknowledges the positive impact he’s made on Western culture.
The performance/outdoor installation master we know today as Christo began life as Christo Vladimir Javacheff, born in a tiny Bulgarian town in 1935. His actual birth date was probably around June 13 (scholars have arrived at that date from contemporary descriptions of flocks in the field and from well-maintained birth records in the registrar’s office) though we now stage our celebration around the time of the pagans’ winter solstice.
His father, Vladimir Yavachev, was a scientist, yet he didn’t allow unblinking loyalty to the scientific method to cloud the metaphysical belief that his son was the Christo Child. Mother Tsveta Dimitrova worked two full-time jobs, as both a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts and as a virgin (the latter position didn’t pay very well but had great benefits in a time when Europe was ravaged with venereal disease).
Young Christo displayed artistic talent at a very early age. Legend has it that once, when his mother experienced a chill, he picked up a throw rug and draped over Tsveta’s shivering shoulders, presaging a career that would see him wrap both natural and manmade objects in immense swaths of cloth and label it “environmental art.” He studied at the Sofia Academy and in Prague for four years, then spent the spring break of 1957 on a train trip to Austria after bribing a railway official to let him out of the Communist bloc.
In October 1958, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Precilda de Guillebon, the mother of the woman who would become his wife and partner for the next fifty years, and known simply as Jeanne-Claude. Initially attracted to her half-sister, he got Jeanne-Claude pregnant instead (sounds like a tragically missed encasing opportunity). Already engaged to another man, she proceeded with the wedding at Christo’s insistence — it’s said he was intrigued by the prospect of seeing so many covered packages among the wedding gifts — but abandoned her new husband immediately after the honeymoon. Jeanne-Claude’s parents were displeased with the relationship because he was a refugee, even though they had plenty of other good reasons.
By 1961 Christo had become wealthy with the invention and patent of the cooking oil Crisco, allowing the two young artists to begin their first major work, covering barrels in the German port of Cologne. In 1962, without the consent of local authorities and as a statement against the Berlin Wall (?), they blocked off a small street near the river Seine with a different set of barrels, while Jeanne-Claude convinced approaching police to let the piece stand for several hours. Somehow, this made them famous in Paris, which convinced them to leave for the U.S.
Flying to New York on separate planes to ensure that both would not die in the same accident, unless of course the two planes crashed into each other, the duo began their American careers. Christo struggled with the English language (as he had struggled with French, and Bulgarian, for that matter), which led him to simplify the crediting of work done by both he and his wife. Even though Jeanne-Claude was the natural organizer, the extrovert and the one who dyed her hair bright red and smoked cigarettes, it was “Christo” who was famous artist. It wasn’t until 1994 that he retroactively gave her half-credit for the work.
Christo loved the freedom of America, and loved how many things it had to wrap. He had been “stateless” since his arrival in Austria years before, and decided to become a U.S. citizen in 1973. He studied hard to pass the citizenship exam, and had to take it several times until it finally sunk in that cotton, denim, acetate, acrylic, nylon, flannel and microfiber were neither presidents nor provisions in the Bill of Rights. One of his proudest moments would come in 2005 when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was okay with him if Christo wanted to erect his most famous project, “The Gates,” in Central Park, as long as he cleaned up after himself. It was that signature piece — 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored fabric and placed on paths throughout the park — which cemented Christo’s image in the public consciousness.
His other most notable works included “Documenta 4,” an inflated air package that hovered 280 feet over Europe for ten hours in 1968; “Running Fence,” a curtain of fabric that ran through the mountains and into the sea; “Surrounded Islands,” the wrapping of eleven islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay in pink woven polypropylene in 1983; and the 1995 packaging of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in fabric. He also installed thousands of umbrellas in Japan and California in a seven-year project appropriately called “The Umbrellas,” that ended colorfully (blue for Japan, yellow for the U.S.) but tragically (two people killed) in 1991.
Not all of Christo’s work was so serious as to be potentially fatal. An important part of Christmas is the fun and levity the season brings, and this is reflected in some of his most light-hearted work. After cartoonist Charles Schulz drew an episode of his comic strip “Peanuts” with Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped in fabric, Christo constructed a wrapped doghouse and presented it to the Schulz Museum in 2003. The artist is also considering ways to enrobe some other popular animated figures, including the Taunting Robot who jumps up and down in the corner of the screen during Fox TV football broadcasts, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.).
Tragically, Christo’s life partner Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm last year, casting a pall over the current holiday season. But knowing Christo’s resilience and his central role in the seasonal theme of new life, he’ll probably take that pall and wrap it around something festive, much like he folded himself into sackcloth to create the Shroud of Turin during his early years in Europe.
So as you finalize your Christmas preparations today, don’t forget to take time to remember the reason for the season. When you wrap up that last present and put it under the tree, don’t forget that it was Christo who was born into this world to save mankind and to offer the idea that gifts temporarily concealed by gaily colored swathing was a great way to celebrate the advent of a Savior.