How to Use Christmas Imagery on your Website
Know the Law on Copyright
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the use of Christmas imagery on your website other than the rule that applies to all images: you must have copyright clearance to use any pictures created by anyone else! That is to say, you may not simply trawl the web for Christmas-related images you like the look of, then download them, perhaps edit them a bit, and insert them into your website hoping that the copyright holder won’t notice.
There are, however, legitimate ways to obtain Christmas images for use on your website. The following are all legitimate approaches:
- You can pay for licensed stock images from one of the stock photography websites previously mentioned in our comparative review.
- You can look for Christmas images that have been offered by the creator with express permission for others to use them, for example with a Creative Commons licence. These may require acknowledgement of the source and a link to its website.
- You can directly contact the webmaster whose site you see an image you like on, and ask for permission to use it.
- You can purchase or borrow old books with out-of-copyright Christmas-related images in them, and take your own scans of these images for use on your website. Because in this case the source imagery is out-of-copyright, these can legally be used, even if the same images have later been reused by others on derivative works that they have themselves copyrighted as a whole. The rules governing what is out-of-copyright are somewhat complex, but as a rule, any book published in the United States before 1926 is out of copyright in its entirety today, and the pictorial imagery in any book published in the UK or Europe whose illustrator has been deceased for more than 70 years is out of copyright today. If you don’t know who illustrated a book published in the UK or Europe, this adds a certain level of uncertainty with regard to any book published between around 1891 and 1950, as depending on the date of death of the illustrator, the pictures in the book may or may not be out of copyright today, so be cautious, and check whether the relevant copyrights have expired or not.
Be Mindful of Religious and Cultural Sensitivities
It is important to remember that Christmas has historically been and is still primarily a religious festival, one that has profound meaning to practising Christians throughout the world. It is nothing less than a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, after whose teachings the religion of Christianity was founded.
Christmas has of course been appropriated for many other purposes in modern times, resulting in much of the view of Christmas we receive through the media having a strong commercial focus.
For example, it is well-known that the depiction of Father Christmas (or as Americans prefer to call him, Santa Claus) as an old man with a long fluffy white beard wearing a bright red gown was the creation of an artist commissioned by the Coca Cola Company for its advertising campaign in 1931. Without Coca Cola, there would be no Father Christmas as we know him today. If you do choose to use modern Santa Claus imagery on your website, be mindful of the fact that devout Christians may find it distasteful or even abhorrent.
Much the same advice goes for the spirit and context in which Christmas imagery is used. If it is used in the context of a sales campaign for a business, then it may offend committed Christians and others who decry the commercialisation of Christmas. If, however, it is used in the context of quiet reflection on Christian values or a celebration of the family gatherings that are traditional around Christmas Day, then it is less likely to cause offence.
Conversely, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that many people do not identify as Christians. At the 2011 census, only 59.3% of British residents identified as Christian. There are many other faiths represented in the UK today, and there are also many atheists. For devotees of the other faiths, the use of Christian imagery on a website even in appropriate contexts may be off-putting, unless they can identify a common cause between the spirit of how it has been used and their own religious beliefs, or they have come to regard Christmas as simply a cultural festival in the UK and to accept it in that secular light.
In short, it pays to know your audience and to be considerate of everyone’s feelings about Christmas. If you really want to be inclusive of all your audience, then if you celebrate Christmas on your website each year, you may wish to consider celebrating the chief festivals of other major religions too, such as Islam, Judaism and Hinduism – but if you are not closely familiar with them, it would be a good idea to take advice from their practising adherents before potentially giving offence with your choice or contextual usage of imagery relating to their festivals.
What Types of Christmas Imagery should I Use?
If you have decided to use Christmas imagery on your website, you should also consider which generic kinds of Christmas imagery are appropriate to the purpose you have in mind.
- If you are a business selling goods that are suitable for use as gifts at Christmas, then perhaps imagery showing Christmas presents wrapped in decorative paper and tied with ribbons, and Christmas trees under which the wrapped presents are stacked, would be appropriate
- If you want to show reverence for the Christian tradition of Christmas, then consider nativity scenes showing the baby Jesus in the manger with his mother Mary.
- If your main purpose is to appeal to those who like the American-influenced international iconography of Christmas, and you don’t need to appeal to more traditional views of Christmas, then look no further than Santa Claus and a band of green elves.
- If, however, you aim to appeal to a traditional British public, then avoid the use of elves at all costs, as they have never been part of the British Christmas tradition, and only very recently have made their way into the younger generation’s consciousness in association with Christmas thanks to relentless exposure to American media.
- Christmas decorations such as holly, ivy, tinsel, paper chains, streamers, and carved angels are instantly recognisable and can be put to good use as border decoration on appropriate pages. They are unlikely to offend, but go easy on the tinsel and streamers, as they can look a bit gaudy!