Today, the fifth and final part of our Christmas Compendium, subtitled The Bleak Midwinter….
Richard Williams (of Tales from Bibury Shop) – Hay on hard ground
I find a very heartwarming sight at this time of year is fresh hay left on the ground of a hard, white wintry field. There is not much grass about, and what is left is either covered in snow or frozen stiff, so the livestocks’ diet must be supplemented by the hay. These handfuls of preserved, dried-out summer are rich in grasses like timothy, fescue and rye and usually full of clover. The animals must take a bite and have a clear remembrance of summer days when the sun was on their backs and fresh grass was in abundance.
Mahlerman – O Come All Ye Faithless
It was so easy back then. The children were small, and their excitement was contagious. Christmas, to them, was a fairy story that everybody seemed to embrace. A quarter century earlier when I was a kid myself in bombed-out Coventry collecting spit in a bottle, Christmas was quite a big deal, but there was just less of it – and I don’t remember it starting in September. In 1960, before the lawn-mowing classes existed, and cinemas sold fruit in the lobby, Christmases were years apart, and this gave the festival a verisimilitude; now it’s about five months from one to the next, particularly for a confirmed antediluvian.
My mum was a Monmouth-Welsh Catholic, and an early single mother at a time when parents stayed together even when love and lust had fallen off the perch. She had married an Irish Protestant in haste to legitimize my arrival, and from then on the religious miasma at home was, at best, ambiguous. I now realize that she must have spent most of her time papering over dozens of cracks on little or no money, to give us some sense of normality. At school, along with horse-meat, ‘Religious Knowledge’ was firmly on the menu, and on sundays and throughout Advent and Christmas, I was dragooned into service as either a choir or alter-boy, taking care to avoid the fevered attentions of a frenzied vicar who, along with his apparent devotion to God, devoted almost as much energy towards a more tangible flesh, that of pre-pubescent boys. But none of this helped me to ‘get’ any sort of message, and for the next 40 years I couldn’t commit, either way. In late middle age I began to read seriously – even bits of the bible, which helped not at all. Matthew intoned that Mary & Joseph were married; Luke insisted they were not, but that they would be soon. David Hume suggested that a miracle ‘is a violation of natural law’. Virgins don’t give birth – but Mary did. It seemed to me that I must be an atheist, and the only real way to test it would be if I were running for my life, but a career as a petty criminal had no appeal.
To break with a faith, even a soft-focus one, requires a moment of courage, courage being a sort of margin within us, and after the death of a son a few years ago, I had no margin – I lost my moorings. And at about the same time, I started to tire – really tire of the rampant commercialism that stalks the land at this time of year, swamping the spiritual message under a tide of lucre and bad TV programmes, but paradoxically making life much easier for a doubting Thomas. Tired of the traditional Nativity? Try this digital version – the whole story packed into less than 3 minutes.
The Christmas Message of Peace? Well excuse me, but what about the other 51 weeks? Giving to the poor? Is it for them, or for us? Or, as Hobbes reminds us ‘we always do what is good for us – self interest is always uppermost’. The unwanted tie, that will force a lie in the weeks ahead. Young couples in the street shopping aimlessly for scented toilet soaps. It all feels so brittle.
The nay-sayers seem to hold the floor currently. Not just Dawkins and Hitchens C, but recently our resident motorized geek Stephen Hawking has pronounced that ‘it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going’.
Perhaps the Hindus have it. They believe the whole material world is maya-illusion. The secret lies in letting go of things. But letting go of what?
I guess I just need to front up and admit it. I’m a Jahovah’s Bystander. I believe in a supreme being, but I just don’t want to get involved.
Worm – a Winter poem
I thought long and hard about this, but then realised that, like Jeremy in Peep Show, Christmas doesn’t really mean anything to me at all. So instead I thought I would just submit this poem as my contribution……
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost (1923)
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.