Recipients of season’s greetings from the First Minister this year could be forgiven for wondering what his cards actually have do to with Christmas.
Where is the baby Jesus in the manger? Where are the shepherds watching their flocks? The cattle-a-lowing are conspicuous by their absence.
It is not only those on Alex Salmond’s Christmas card list who may lament the lack of a charming nativity scene – the subject of the Christmas card himself has missed the big event.
The musclebound figure, in a Saltire-decorated simmet, painted by renowned Scots artist Peter Howson, is Artaban – the little known “fourth wise man” who came to Bethlehem too late to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Yesterday Mr Salmond explained that Artaban appears in a novel by Henry van Dyke as a Persian scholar unable to take part in the Adoration of the Magi, because he missed the caravan of the three other wise men travelling East.
An unscheduled stop to help a dying man meant Artaban failed to make his rendezvous with Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar and arrived at the scene of the birth after Mary, Joseph and Jesus had fled to Egypt.
Unveiling his unusual Christmas card, Mr Salmond related that more than 30 years on in Jerusalem, at Passover, Artaban was still searching for Jesus after devoting his life to helping the needy. “Now an old man, he parts with the last of his three gifts to Jesus – a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl – to save a young girl from slavery,” Mr Salmond said.
As the crucifixion unfolded, Artaban died from a falling tile dislodged in an earthquake.
“However, in a dying vision, Artaban is comforted that his devotion to the distressed has secured him entrance to the kingdom of heaven.
“The story reminds us that hope, faith and self-sacrifice are at the centre of the order of things,” the First Minister said.
Mr Salmond said “Artaban” was a “hugely appropriate” work for his Christmas card and thanked Mr Howson for donating his “outstanding” painting.
The Howson image is the latest in a series of First Ministerial Christmas cards which have raised more than £148,000 for good causes through sales of the paintings and prints.
The Howson picture will be auctioned in the New Year, with the proceeds shared between the Children’s Hospice Association Scotland; CLIC Sargent; the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund; and Combat Stress.
Mr Salmond’s opponents shared his conviction that the picture was appropriate – albeit for different reasons.
Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: “A man wearing a worn vest standing in a barren wasteland – perhaps this is the last survivor of a separate Scotland. The only thing missing from this vision are swathes of wind turbines.”
Images submitted to Mr Salmond for his Christmas card have had a touch of the unconventional in the past. In 2010, a design painted by Jack Vettriano titled Ae Fond Kiss was given a knockback for being a little too racy. Instead, a less risqué Vettriano titled Let’s Twist Again was deemed sufficiently safe to be sent from Bute House.