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For millions of children, and a great many adults too, Christmas Eve is the most anticipated night of the year. Consequently, painters have often made it the subject of their work.

Many such paintings are available on Art UK, and it's striking how clearly they can be separated into three categories.

Firstly, as we would expect, there are religious scenes. Secondly, as we would probably also expect, there are secular scenes of parties and preparations, drinking and music. And thirdly there is a category we might not expect at all: pictures that we only know are of Christmas Eve because their titles tell us.

Christmas Card

Christmas Card

Arthur Edwin Baker (1876–1960)

Valence House Museum

Each of these groups offers distinct visions of the last day of Advent, even though – with the exception of a Christmas card by Arthur Edwin Baker – there's not a Santa in sight.

No room at the inn: religious scenes

The story of Christmas Eve in art begins, naturally, with the story of the first Christmas Eve. Arthur Melville's Christmas Eve: 'And There Was No Room For Them in the Inn' condenses the miracle of the Nativity into its most human moment – the heavily pregnant Virgin Mary and her husband, Joseph, being refused a room for the night. They look hopeful and tired. Even the donkey carrying Mary seems exhausted – its expression is unmistakably abject.

Christmas Eve: 'And There Was No Room for Them in the Inn'

Christmas Eve: 'And There Was No Room for Them in the Inn' 1900–1904

Arthur Melville (1855–1904)

National Galleries of Scotland

Melville's picture is fraught with dramatic irony, in both the short term and the long. We know what Mary and Joseph may not yet realise – that the faceless innkeeper is about to turn them away. But of course, we know more than that. We know that this moment precedes the story of the birth of Christ, and thus the entire story of the life of Christ, and all that has meant to the world in the centuries since.

It is on this that the people in two paintings by Gordon Metcalfe will soon be reflecting – they are heading to a church service on Christmas Eve. In both his scenes of St James's Church in Bushey, the sky seems too bright for that service to be Midnight Mass.

Christmas Eve, St James' Church, Bushey

Christmas Eve, St James' Church, Bushey 2008

Gordon Metcalfe (b.1935)

Bushey Museum and Art Gallery

But perhaps the lamp-like full moon has us fooled. Its brilliance, and its prominence in pictures of a church on Christmas Eve, recall the Star of Bethlehem. Just as that star guided the Magi to the birth of Christ, so this moon seems to guide the faithful to services that commemorate it.

Metcalfe decides not to show us the inside of the church, nor the congregation that is presumably gathering there. Instead, we see only isolated pairs of worshippers, from the point of view of someone outside in the snow. Whether we share their faith or not, the warm light that spills from the church windows beckons us inside.

A little bit tipsy: secular scenes

Christmas Eve in a Catalan City

Christmas Eve in a Catalan City

Arthur Trevor Haddon (1864–1941)

Bushey Museum and Art Gallery

The most populous of the three broad categories, into which we can sort the paintings of Christmas Eve on Art UK, is the group of pictures that depict non-religious scenes. These are usually images of secular celebrations, although Arthur Trevor Haddon's Christmas Eve in a Catalan City, which shows turkeys being sold in a busy marketplace, demonstrates that last-minute Christmas shopping is not a modern phenomenon.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve 1897

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857–1947)

Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove

Street musicians feature prominently, as in Christmas Eve by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, Christmas Eve, Highcross Market, Leicester, Sixteenth Century by Henry Reynolds Steer, and A Little Bit Tipsy, Christmas Eve, 1996 by William A. G. Ward.

Christmas Eve, Highcross Market, Leicester, Sixteenth Century

Christmas Eve, Highcross Market, Leicester, Sixteenth Century c.1900

Henry Reynolds Steer (1858–1928)

Leicester Museums and Galleries

It speaks to the continuity of Britain's Christmas traditions that the sixteenth-century musicians painted by Steer (in around 1900) and those from 1996 painted by Ward look so similar.

A Little Bit Tipsy, Christmas Eve, 1996 (The Old Hoss)

A Little Bit Tipsy, Christmas Eve, 1996 (The Old Hoss) 1996

William A. G. Ward (b.1926)

The Richmond Collection

Just as merry as the musicians in A Little Bit Tipsy are the revellers in William Allan's Christmas Eve. On the right of the picture, through a well-lit doorway, we can see dancers apparently conducting themselves with decorum.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

William Allan (1782–1850)

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

But we are focused on a less restrained scene. A young man has climbed a precarious ladder to dangle a colossal bunch of mistletoe. Beneath him, a man has swept a woman into his arms and is intent on kissing her. Her expression makes us ponder if his attentions are entirely welcome. Nearby, other couples are also embracing, while, in the foreground, two children seem to be drunk on the floor.

But not all Christmas Eve activities are quite so uncontrolled. In Christmas Eve, 1932 (First Night of the Pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield) by Roberta Louise Jennings, the festive red and gold glow of the theatre has attracted a queue of eager theatregoers that remains relatively orderly.

Meanwhile, the guests at the tea party in Steer At Home, 109 Cheyne Walk (on Christmas Eve) by Henry Tonks are so sedate we wonder if they are enjoying themselves at all.

Do they know it's Christmas? Un-festive scenes

It's unsurprising that a series of paintings devoted to memorable scenes from an artist's childhood includes a recollection of Christmas Eve, but the scene that Stephen Chaplin shows us in Mr Churchill's Speech, Christmas 1941 – which is one of a set of 39 paintings of events in Chaplin's boyhood – gives no indication that the strange event we are witnessing happened at Christmas at all.

We can infer from its title, though, that the painting concerns Winston Churchill's transatlantic radio broadcast of 24th December 1941. While listening, Chaplin's father became so animated that he poked himself in the eye and cut his eyeball.

Mr Churchill's Speech, Christmas 1941

Mr Churchill's Speech, Christmas 1941 2005

Stephen Chaplin (b.1934)

Bromley Historic Collections

It is this unforgettable incident that Chaplin captures, showing a moment of great animation in an image – of a man in a chair listening to the radio – that we would expect to be a study in stillness.

In John Randall Bratby's Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, it's difficult to tell which of the three days we are seeing – and that is the point.

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day 1959

John Randall Bratby (1928–1992)

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

Bratby suggests these days are indistinguishable. His vision of Christmas seems defiantly anti-festive. He presents none of the standard visual clues that would tell us we are looking at a Christmas scene: we see no snow or festive lights outside the window, and no decorations inside it.

The content of the picture reminds us that, for many, Christmas is a time of dreary domestic inertia and social isolation, while its deliberately overwrought style – the white curls of the lace curtains could almost be the tips of storm-tossed waves – hints at the emotional turbulence this can cause.

Climbing Cader Idris – which is, after Snowdon, the second-highest peak in Wales – is a serious undertaking that takes hours to accomplish. And so perhaps Judith Yarrow's painting Climbing Cader Idris on Christmas Eve shows the artist's commitment to avoiding the social hubbub and hurried errands that characterise the day before Christmas.

Climbing Cader Idris on Christmas Eve

Climbing Cader Idris on Christmas Eve 2003

Judith Yarrow (b.1953)

Brunel University London Arts Collection

But if Yarrow had wanted to free herself entirely of associations with Christmas, she would surely not have included 'Christmas Eve' in the work's title.

By ensuring we know that this snowless brown landscape is an image of Christmas Eve, Yarrow may be making the point that Christmas is not something imposed on us from outside, but something we carry inside us, wherever we happen to be on 24th December.

Scott Jordan Harris, arts journalist