Christmas: “The Feast for Artists”

This year’s Holiday Pops program features the artwork of children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola.
The artwork of children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola helps to tell the Christmas story during Holiday Pops concerts this season.

Tomie dePaola has always loved Christmas.

“[It’s] my favorite holiday. I absolutely loved Christmas when I was little, and that love has stayed with me now that I’m an old, old man” he said with a laugh.

“Years ago, I read this wonderful statement that one of the early church fathers said in a Christmas homily – that ‘Christmas is the feast for artists, because it’s when the invisible becomes visible.’ And that’s exactly what we have to do as artists. We get an idea in our heads, and then we have to make it visible and make it tangible. And that isn’t as easy a job as it might sound,” he said.

dePaola has spent 63 years making his ideas tangible as a critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of more than 260 children’s books, including Strega Nona, Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose, Oliver Button Is a Sissy, and 26 Fairmount Avenue. Of those hundreds of books, 20 of them are Christmas stories – which is why, in 2015, the Boston Pops staff contacted dePaola to ask if they could project his illustrations during the orchestra’s Holiday Pops performances of “The Christmas Story,” the orchestra’s musical interpretation of the classic biblical tale with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and a baritone narrator and soloist.


dePaola quickly said yes. He liked the idea of “a nice little slideshow playing along with some Christmas carols.” When he attended a Holiday Pops concert months later and saw the finished product, he was shocked. “It started, and I burst into tears,” he said. “I had no idea that it was going to be so spectacular.…It’s just breathtaking.”

The Pops first performed Philip Lane’s arrangement of “The Christmas Story” in 2009 without projections, but Julian and Eunice Cohen Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart and the rest of the Pops team felt something was missing. After some editing to the arrangement by Maestro Lockhart and Broadway arranger Bill Elliott, the team decided the piece needed images to help tell the story.

“I immediately thought of Tomie dePaola from my childhood books, and remembered that he had written a lot of books about Christmas,” said Amanda Severin, Manager of Artistic Planning and Services for the Pops, who selected all of the images to include in the performance.

Dennis Alves, Director of Artistic Planning, said that adding dePaola’s artwork made a world of difference for the piece.

“Tomie’s images are so colorful,” said Alves. “The colors are so rich…but also in music and in orchestration, composers and orchestrators create color with music, so it’s like the music and the images sort of enhance each other and reflect each other.”

Severin agreed. She said both the music and the illustrations were wonderful on their own, “but when you put them together, it’s more than the sum of its parts.…It really becomes an emotional experience.”

One of dePaola’s art professors once told him, “Your art should work as small as a postage stamp or as large as a billboard.” dePaola had never seen his artwork on such a large scale before the concerts in 2015 and had no idea what to expect.

“My images are small – they’re in books,” said dePaola. “To have them blown up that big and to be as powerful as I kind of knew they were, secretly, and [to see] the way Keith and the team used my images in such a beautiful storytelling way…I was just pleased as punch that my imagery worked so well.” 

And for dePaola, this is the best story he could help to tell. “The wonderful thing about the Christmas story,” he said, “is that it’s about a child being born. And regardless of what denomination you are, what religion you are, the story of a child being born is just a remarkable story.…It’s the whole magic of new birth.”

“There’s a thread that runs through all of the [holiday] stories,” said Alves. “It’s all about darkness to light. So we hope people go away in the holiday spirit; perhaps they feel more warm and fuzzy, and more generous. You know, these days, there’s just so much tough stuff happening. A lot of people are under stress…and we provide two hours of respite. It’s a place to get away from the noise, and music is really the great healer.”

dePaola will attend the Kids Matinee on December 18 at 4:30pm to see the performance again and join the Pops on stage to narrate Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” followed by a post-concert book signing in Symphony Hall.

“I’m so happy that my gifts are going to be part of a celebration for all these people to come to,” he said. “I think that it’s going to make an impact that they’ll never forget, to be perfectly honest. And I’m forever grateful to the Pops for doing that for me – I’m not sure that when they asked, they knew it would mean so much to me personally, but it does. I can’t wait to see it again.”

Great seats are still available for the Kids Matinee on December 18. You can purchase tickets here.

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