This is a bit of a mish-mash, with all sorts of sources bunged together. I’d like to think of it as an enquiry into why Christmas a time of nostalgia but suspect it is a pile of stuff under a Christmas tree with no labels: sort through the pile and see what you can find. But why do we look back at Christmas? Why does the glorious The Friendly Beasts by Tomie de Paola have choristers and candles to sign/sing us to the stable? It is as if the validity of Christmas in some ways springs from this appeal to the past. Is it because Christianity has created a feast in which “history” is one of the most important guests? I’m not sure. De Paola often has this sense of tradition, such as his retelling of Italian folk tales, the beautiful Clown of God, and representations of Bible stories – and the Night Before Christmas, which is our family’s standard version of the poem (follow this link to Jake Hayes who has some lovely photos of this version). There is some of that, certainly, right from St Luke’s dating of events and the genealogies he and St Matthew produce. Perhaps it is also because, in the partial extirpation of a pagan Yule, one of the things that remains is an echo that says “remember how it used to be…” – and could this be an attempt to return to a (mythical) Christmas of our own childhoods? And then maybe in England that nostalgia includes a sorrowing for some good old days, a golden age around 1500 CE or maybe 1600, or 1800… There is more than one ghost of Christmas past, I suspect, and maybe as well as our personal ones we carry ones for our society too, whether we acknowledge them or not.
It is not only Dickens that feels the weight of past Christmasses. Cole Hawlings who “does date from pagan times” in The Box of Delights sings the rescued Cathedral staff back to their Midnight Mass where they are greeted by the monks from years past
…for on such a Christmas Eve what one of them would keep away?
and Tolly’s dream-like experience of Midnight Mass moves between his own twentieth century and the past of his family in the seventeenth. As I have just cited recently, Susan Cooper celebrates this looking back when celebrating the Solstice:
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day…
What is the attraction of the past for this festival?
In the run-up to this Christmas I come back (again) to poets Thomas Merton and R S Thomas. Here are two poems that seem to me typical of their approach to Christmas. Merton first of all, surrounded by the traditions of his faith and practice like Duccio’s Maesta or Martini’s: All those hopes and fears of all the years gathered around the Virgin and Child:
Flocks feed by darkness with a noise whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
and lull the solemn night with their weak bells.
The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.
God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom is born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.
And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;
While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet smelling hay
Beside the wise men’s golden jars.
and Thomas, well, Thomas is aware of the biting wind of doubt and silence in the Nada Nada Nada, Y En El Monte Nada of St John of the Cross. Here he captures a Christmas purity that I think is hard to beat:
The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.
They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.
RST is like this: grounded but bleak, with a now rather than a history in his poem. This is often his way, I think (although not always): a doubting impatience in the spiritual –
Will you continue to torment us?
If you are ubiquitous, why
not be here when we say : Now?
Thomas: Could Be
I have been a student of your love
and have not graduated. Setting
my own questions, I bungled
Merton, however, pours out his love not only for the God he seeks in monastic profession but also in places for the life itself:
The sun that plays in the amazing church
Melts all the rigor of those cowls as grey as stone – Or in the evening gloom that clouds them through those tintless panes,
The choirs fall down in tidal waves
And thunder on the darkened forms in a white surf of Glorias.
Merton: St Ailred
I’m not sure I can answer my own question, to be honest: Christmas is a time of looking back, looking forward – and inwards too. For me, the tensions between the very grounded (and dark) spirituality of R S Thomas and the almost ecstatic exuberance of Thomas Merton is resolved in a medieval lyric:
This is the text:
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay,
The fawcon hath born my mak away.
He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown.
In that orchard ther was an hall
That was hangid with purpill and pall.
And in that hall ther was a bede;
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.
And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His woundes bledyng day and nyght.
By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.
And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston :
Corpus Christi wretyn thereon.
It is known as a Christmas carol in a slightly altered version, where the moon shines bright on a saviour… born this night, but the earliest version seems to me to be a visit to the Sacrament where the Passion is clearly discerned. Benjamin Britten’s version is here, but the version of Britten’s setting I know best and love is Jeff Buckley’s anguished countertenor.
But let’s go back a bit. Here I am, in the mid-70s, eighteen or nineteen years old, and opening my new Breviary for the first time, exploring what it has in it. It has an appendix of poems as well as hymns and in coming for the first time to the Corpus Christi carol I remember myself (a year or so before) back to a little gothic church in the hills above Guildford.
Lully lulley; lully lulley.
The fawcon hath born my mak away.
So why the falcon? And why the lullaby refrain? The idea of being suddenly snatched now makes me think of a sparrowhawk or peregrine, but I will let my C16th predecessor (who doubtless was more at home with such things as this MS/blog from the British Library suggest) have her/his way. In a near-sleep, dreamlike state, a soul is snatched away to a hall –
He bare hym up, he bare hym down;
He bare hym into an orchard brown.
…and in the hall in a wood (or Eden after the Fall, its trees bare), sees the truth of the link between Passion and Eucharist.
The trees surrounding the Franciscan Friary church (now Chilworth Abbey) could well be leafless in winter, and at any rate the “truth” of this matters less than what the image said to me in my late teens: a religious experience that was sudden and rooted in mediaeval imagery brought me (I am unsure who “my mak” is otherwise) to an altar, to the reserved sacrament on its bed. We might well be beyond the limits of medieval orthodoxy here, in the realm of the eternally bleeding Fisher King perhaps, as we look at the knight in bed and his attending virgin. The song remains sited for me in a small monastic/friary choir, all gothic and quiet. What strikes me some forty-odd years later is how powerful the medieval imagery is.
This seems to me to be important for a number of reasons, and at the moment, prominent in these for me is that whatever we make of this kind of medievalism it remains a touchstone of Christian – or perhaps Catholic Christian – piety. It allows us back into a time (or a mythology) where there was space for a rich visual and linguistic expression of religious practice. I might contest this, sometimes – a sort of liturgical Sealed Knot where historical re-enactment is what it’s all about – but I cannot deny its power. It allows me to read The Cloud of Unknowing, or Bl Julian of Norwich with a sense of continuity that draws on aesthetics as much as reason or ipsissima verba. It opens a door, as it were, to the MSS I love to read.
I sometimes wonder whether, somewhere along the line, I learned (probably wrongly) that this allowed me to say “I belonged;” I belonged to something big and beatific. Seeing it at Chilworth was therefore a step towards the belonging I felt for a time at Magdalen and then Ampleforth and then Blackfriars. And therefore for me Christmas might be some kind of looking backwards to see what Christmas means; to some extent, looking at might-have-beens.