Happy Christmas (War Is Over), Love, John & Yoko
By Katie Gillespie
In December 1969, then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson received a Christmas card with the words, ‘War is Over! If you want it’ emblazoned across the front. Who else could it be from, other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono, sarcastically signed, ‘with love to the Wilsons from the Lennons’. A month prior, Lennon returned the MBE he was awarded, protesting ‘Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.’(1) Lennon’s politically charged sense of humour wasn’t much appreciated by the Prime Minister, who scrawled a small ‘No’ in green pen atop the card. The Wilsons did not return the festive gesture.
In the same year Lennon sent the A5 version of his iconic ‘War is Over!’ poster to prominent figures he wanted to ‘wind up’,(2) he also partnered with the charity, Variety, to design another card, sent to friends and family, including Ono’s daughter, Kyoko Cox. Proceeds from sales of his card aided Variety’s work to provide support to children living with disabilities or living in poverty. Lennon’s abstract creation bears little resemblance to the typical depictions of Christmas iconography. Instead, colourful, psychedelic faces peer out from the card. It’s slightly unnerving. I feel as if, were it sat on my mantlepiece, I’d spend the holiday period with the hunch that I was being watched. That feeling was perhaps familiar to Wilson, with the eyes of the British public scrutinising his every decision. A turbulent year for British politics, Wilson had to determine the level of involvement his government would take in conflicts in Nigeria, Northern Ireland, and Vietnam. Lennon’s two 1969 Christmas cards respond to this turbulence, intruding into the psyche of their receiver. Nonetheless, given my own sentiment towards Lennon’s design, it’s fortunate that I’m not able to spare the £2,805 required to buy a copy of the fifty-four-year-old Christmas card at auction.
Left: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, War is Over, If You Want It, 1969, source: Liverpool Beatles Museum
Right: John Lennon, Christmas Card for Variety, 1969, source: Bonhams
The Sixties marked a decade filled with charity Christmas card partnerships for Lennon. He produced a card for the charity, Action For Crippled Children which featured the design for the 1964 Beatles Christmas Show on the cover. Later, in 1967, he repurposed his drawing of the ‘Fat Budgie’ that had appeared in his nonsense book, A Spaniard in the Works, for a collaboration with Oxfam. Proceeds funded the charity’s work to alleviate global poverty. Lennon's Christmas cards showcase his preoccupation with how visual art can play a role in advancing social causes. (3)
The Sixties marked a decade filled with charity Christmas card partnerships for Lennon. He produced a card for the charity, Action For Crippled Children which featured the design for the 1964 Beatles Christmas Show on the cover. Later, in 1967, he repurposed his drawing of the ‘Fat Budgie’ that had appeared in his nonsense book, A Spaniard in the Works, for a collaboration with Oxfam. Proceeds funded the charity’s work to alleviate global poverty. Lennon's Christmas cards showcase his preoccupation with how visual art can play a role in advancing social causes.
Lennon and Ono pursued their humanitarian concerns in their 1968 gallery show at Robert Fraser Gallery in London, titled You are here. The exhibition included sixty charity collection boxes scattered across the floor. Visitors had to navigate through statuettes of children in wheelchairs or supported on crutches, with the written plea ‘Please give so he may live’. Charity boxes for The Salvation Army, Muscular Dystrophy Research, the RSPCA, The National Childbirth Trust, the WWF, the Red Cross, and countless other charities blocked any clear pathway into the next room. When discussing You are here, Lennon explained that ‘there are no hidden secrets. My art is in fact displaying these boxes for charity.’(4)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, You are here, installation shot, 1968, source: www.johnlennon.com
If you Google ‘Most famous band in the world’ one of the first results to appear is the Wikipedia page for The Beatles. Evidently, Lennon is known as a musician first, an activist second, and potentially a visual artist somewhere further down the line. However, as a former student of Liverpool College of Art, he tended to draw inside the Christmas cards he sent. In her 1969 cards, Kyoko received what has since become an iconic image in popular culture: the self-portrait doodle of Lennon, alongside a portrait of Ono. Effectively, Lennon created a form of visual signature to accompany his words. He continued to use this signature as his family with Ono expanded, with their son Sean included in the family portrait on a copy of a Happy Xmas (War Is Over) CD sent to Hilary Gerrard–Ringo Starr’s business manager–in the late 1970s.
Left: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Christmas Card to Kyoko Cox 1969, source: www.momentsintime.com
Right: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Happy Xmas (War Is Over) CD, source: Bonhams
Of the pair, Yoko Ono is more ostensibly known for her visual art, with a large solo exhibition dedicated to her work on display at the Tate Modern from next February. However, her better-known works are often performances or concept art. Take for examples, 1964’s Cut Piece, where visitors were invited to cut a piece from Ono’s clothing, or 2015’s To See the Sky, a spiral staircase installed beneath a sky light. To ascend to the top is to contemplate the sky, and, as she explains, our fallibility should we attempt to reach it. Her works on paper are perhaps lesser known, but many have reappeared, replicated on the Christmas cards sent by Ono to her friends and family since Lennon’s death in 1980.
A series of drawings known as the ‘Franklin Summer’ drawings, an ongoing project that Ono began in 1994, have sporadically featured on her Christmas cards from as early as 1996. The drawings are built up by dots of ink, in a form of pointillism, to create ethereal, abstract compositions. Ono described the production of these drawings, explaining that the process ‘was very much like what one goes through in meditation.’(5) They are assuredly wacky. Yet there is also something quiet about the drawings, which make them seem an odd choice for a Christmas card. At least in my eyes, Christmas feels like the most visually busy time of year. For nearly two months of the year, we’re bombarded by festive advertising, window displays, and Christmas lights. By repurposing her ‘Franklin Summer’ drawings Ono softly challenges the loudness of the commercialised holiday season. In their quiet eccentricity, Ono’s cards reflect the artist that created them; they are at once the soft-spoken Ono and the radical Ono who experimented with musical compositions like ‘Why’ (1970). Often featuring lyrics from Happy Xmas (War Is Over) on the inside, her cards carry the memory of her late husband and her life-long campaign for peace.
Left: Yoko Ono, Christmas Card 1996, source: www.invaluable.com
Right: Yoko Ono, Christmas Card 2022, source: Jody Denberg, via X
Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always endlessly creative, Lennon and Ono’s cards are continually cherished by those that receive them. As music journalist and radio DJ, Jody Denberg tweeted last year, ‘It always brings deep joy to find a Christmas card from Yoko Ono in my mailbox!’(6) Beyond the cover, their cards represent more than seasonal gestures. They embody the legendary couple’s shared journey, their commitment to social causes, and celebration of individuality. Each card becomes a keepsake, a token of love and creativity, with a message that will outlast the artists that made them.