Christmas card paintings
On cover: Jill Banks, “From the Hearth,” oil on linen-lined panel, 14 x 11 in., private collection

Since 1972, artist Jill Banks has been known as her parents’ “Christmas Card Creative Director.” View some of the nostalgic cards in this homage.

By Jill Banks

Once upon a time, Mom’s annual Christmas poem and notes for my parents’ card were unaccompanied by one of my drawings . . . or later, paintings. All that changed in 1972 (I’d like to say when I was 2…) and they’ve yet to ask me to retire, 46 years hence.

This collection of cards packs quite a history. Mom’s poems, my parents’ sentiments, reflect the concerns and joys that each year holds — in the nation, the world, and among family and friends. They noted milestones, moves, babies, weddings, deaths, anniversaries, wars, peace talks, Nixon’s resignation, inflation, elections, dreams, trials and tribulations. The stuff that life is made of.

The artwork has clearly changed over the years . . . as 2003 marked the beginning of my pursuit of fine art. My medium and tools shifted, too, from sparsely used markers or colored pencils to well-worn brushes and oil paints or graphite and charcoal. My once-a-year “job” as Christmas Card Creative Director no longer veers quite so far from my career as a prolific, award-winning oil painter. My signature has altered, too — not just style, but my name — from Jill Johnson (earliest years) to Jill Banks (married name, from then to now).

Christmas card paintings
2005, on cover: “Pre-Dinner Drinks (Parlor of the Inn at Little Washington),” oil on linen-lined panel, 12 x 9 in., private collection

“Technology” has evolved — from one-color printing to that plus hand-coloring red bows, to two-color, to four. Print preparations starkly contrast. Not so long ago, my mom would shrink/enlarge real film photos of grandkids (lots of trips to the photo guys in town), then paste siblings together to peek out from holes cut into my physical artwork (take a close look at the card art from 1989). Now, page layout programs and photo editing software are employed to send press-ready files to the printer. A bit simpler. No scissors necessary.

Christmas Cards by artists
The artwork for the 1989 card. I drew the cover art (markers). Mom collected photos of each of the then six grandkids and then resized and cut them out to fit in their wreath “frames.” Think about her cutting the holes inside the wreaths to show the photos behind. Then, the printer took it from here to pull it all together.

Some things have held steady over the years. Mom and Dad’s cards continue to weave the story of a beautiful, inspirational life journey — of love, friendship, parenthood, grandparenthood, sickness, loss of loved ones, and joyful celebrations.

Looking back — to pull this Christmas Card “history” together I was so deeply touched by passages in my parents’ lives I’d missed. In picking out covers to include, choices were often tied to the messages inside. Like 2007, with a replay of her poem from 1957 (before my time) when my brothers recreated the Christmas story as Joseph and Mary. (That poem is included below.)

Additional Painted Christmas Cards

The original painting for the 2018 card is “Serenade,” oil on linen-lined panel, 10 x 8 in. by Jill Banks (available through the artist)
Christmas card paintings
My “part” in putting this card’s cover together is being the creator of the painting above the piano in my parents’ home. That’s “Garden Girl,” oil on linen, 50 x 42 in. — a still life painted of a setup brought to me, designed, by my dad. It includes one of Mom’s favorite dolls — on loan to my studio as needed. The painting, the cards are all a family affair. You’ll notice, too, that “Garden Girl” changed residence between 2014’s card cover (when she was above the mantel at my house) to 2017, when Mom and Dad decided they just had to have her.
Christmas card paintings
2012’s cover: “Bringing Home the Tree,” oil on linen-lined panel, 8 x 6 in., private collection. The figurine is one of my parents’ favorites. I have a feeling it reminds my dad of himself.
Christmas card paintings
2009, on cover: “Elf on the Chandelier,” graphite, red pastel, and charcoal pencil, 8.5 x 5.5 in., private collection. This guy was part of the normal Winter Wonderland decorations donned all about my parents’ condo. They’ve moved since then to another neat new home . . . and various elves continue to frolic about all the light fixtures.
Christmas card paintings
1994 Card: “Christmas Light” with my drawing of the Christmas candle and photos of Mom and Dad’s seven grandkids. This predates my embarking on a fine art journey . . . all covers created before 2003 are by me as a once-a-year Christmas card illustrator.
Christmas Cards by artists
1991 Card: “Seasons of Dreams”
Christmas Cards by artists
1983 Card: My drawing is of niece, Megan, my parents’ first grandchild.
Christmas Cards by artists
1981 Card: My drawing of the front of Mom and Dad’s home in Haverford, PA. The red bows were colored by hand on each card by Mom.
Christmas Cards by artists
My second year as Christmas Card Creative Director. (You don’t get to see year one unless you happened to be on my parents’ mailing list then.)
For my parents’ 2007 card, they reprinted the poem she’d written about Christmas 1957. It told of my brothers reenacting the story of the manager as 5- and 3-year-olds. It might be my favorite poem and so neat to have this look back through my mom’s eyes.

So, because my expertise is in “pictures” and my mom’s is in “words,” here, with permission granted, are excerpts from her poems.

Scotty and Phil – Christmas 1957
(Reprinted Christmas 2007, above)

The New Year’s here, the tree’s all down, the presents are away
Still most of us remember this most recent Christmas Day
We all have ways of setting firm the mem’ries that we cherish
By photographs or other means in hope they’ll never perish

This year for us was special. We were in for a surprise
Our 5 year old, in twelve short months, had grown to be quite wise
We both were very proud last year when we would hear him say
That Christmas was a happy time, “’Twas Jesus’ Birthday”

He vaguely knew the manger scene, but carols, he knew none
For Christmas then meant Santa’s trip, the tree, the toys, the fun
But this year, I was clearing up some things I always leave
Undone until the day before the day of Christmas Eve.

When this same boy approached me with a somewhat strange request
He wanted several safety pins, for what, I’d ne’er have guessed
He took the pins and I heard him say, “I got them” to his brother
His words were reassuring, “I’ll be REALLY careful, Mother”

I could tell by little whispers and the gleam in Scotty’s eyes
That in just a few short minutes, I would see the big surprise
I pretended I’d forgotten so they’d take me off my guard
Though when two small boys are quiet, indifference is quite hard

It pleases me when patience shows on the part of our son, Scott
’Cause patience is a virtue Phil, age three, has just not got
But he worked with Phil and it wasn’t long ’til they came to let me see
What I’ll not forget, should I live to be one hundred thirty-three

’Round Philip’s head was a frilly blanket, pinned beneath his chin
His ears stuck out, but a word from Scott, and he quickly tucked them in
Now Scotty’s wool plaid blanket was securely pinned in place
To resemble ancient robes, and with a grin upon his face

He turned to show how he had tied his scarf behind his head
It was his favorite cowboy scarf, so wrinkled and so red
In Philip’s arms, a Teddy Bear was nearly out of sight
Because their Davy Crockett rug was wrapped around it tight

Though you’ve probably guessed the story by now, with facts I will not tarry
Our Scott was dressed as Joseph, and our Phil was dressed as Mary
Their costumes they had copied from the church play with great care
Since they had no doll for Jesus, they had used their Teddy Bear

So after getting words of praise on how nicely they were dressed
They scampered to the playroom to enact the scene so blessed
Our Scott would knock on closet doors, “May we stay here for the night?”
He’d accept their “no” then knock again, and again explain their plight

“We have traveled many miles today, so we hope our room is near
My wife and I are very tired, and our baby will soon be here”
Then finally they found a place, ’twas just a lonely stable
But the two of them were happy, and it would hold their baby’s cradle

They suddenly stopped short their play, and Scott ran out to me
He didn’t feel quite right about the Teddy Bear, you see
He felt it would be better if someone he KNEW could play
The little baby, Jesus, who was born amid the hay

“Would you call Mrs. McKenzie? See if Ger and Mike are home”
I listened to the plan he had, then called her on the phone
He’d chosen for the angel, Mike, who’s very sweet, but wild
And Geralyn, a little GIRL, was to be the small Christ Child

With the four of them so busy, I was listening, heart and soul
Ger wanted to be Mary, but our Phil clung to his role
Scott aligned them in our kitchen and directed them to sing
For the time had come for them to hail the Birthday of the King

But as they all began their march, Mike vanished out of sight
While “The Manger Song” was sung by Scott, and Ger sang “Silent Night”
Our Philip folded both his hands, and bowed his head to pray
His song was “Sandy Sleighfoot” and he sang it his own way

But no matter that the words or tunes were never in accord
The important thing was each small child was singing to the Lord!

-Ken and Shonnie

In 1977, when while I was away at college, my Mom was scarily sick . . . being revived one week before writing that poem of hope, faith, and love. Both covers match the messages inside although I wasn’t there for either “story” when it unfolded.

Christmas Cards by artists
1977 Card: I don’t know what Mom’s instructions were to me for the design of that year’s cover. Her poem (below) tells just how difficult the year had been (I was away at college during the scariest times) and how love is what got them through. I guess that’s us on the cover — as a penguin family. Love conquers.

And this message of hope and love from 1977’s card from Mom and Dad:

Christmas 1977

As is always our custom at poem-writing time
We look back at the year which has passed
From a standpoint of sickness, concern, and adjustments
We’ve never felt more than the last

So many long weeks spent apart and in hospitals
Hours of worry and fears
My mom being sick for so long — and then me
It has really been one of those years

But doctors and medicine, time, and good care
Concern from so far and so near
The prayers and the thoughts and the love of so many
Helped make those dark days disappear

It’s hard to believe that just one week ago
I barely could pick up a pen
But again we’ve been shown what miraculous things
Can occur and astonish us when

One is well taken care of and showered with love
And we really think LOVE is the key
It has soothed disappointments and filled empty hours
We must add, and we’re sure you’ll agree,

That a hospital makes you aware of your blessings
Surrounded by sickness and pain
So we hope this same LOVE reaches out in abundance
To comfort, encourage, sustain

She continues with some family blessings and news of their upcoming move from Long Island to Philadelphia, with this the end of 1977’s poem:

It is true — there is SO much to be thankful for
There is not room to put it in writing
It is fitting that Christmas would come at the time
A season so bright and exciting

A season so filled with great faith and great hope
A season so teeming with joy
A season which puts us in touch with old friends
From the two coasts to Illinois

What a marvelous season, so brimming with LOVE
A season we always remember
We’ll spend it in Cold Spring this year, yet we know
That we’ll always be spending December

In a home which is filled, as it now is, with LOVE
For each other, our family, and friends
Location won’t change it. It goes where we go
It’s a feeling we hope never ends

So although we have wished it on previous cards
We’re repeating — that all else above
Since to us — it’s the greatest of all of God’s gifts
We most of all — wish you all LOVE!

– Ken and Shonnie Johnson

Warm wishes to YOU, too, from this beautiful couple’s “kid” and cover artist.
~Jill Banks

Catch what I’m painting the rest of the year at or follow me on Facebook at JillBanksStudio and Instagram here.

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  1. Such talent from both parents and Jill. It is our pleasure to know Shonnie and Ken, and I have visited Jill’s studio. Blessings to all for enriching our lives.
    Barbara and Adrian Pelzner


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