Day Twenty Four
There is a feeling that sometimes arrives on this day, usually after the sun has set and the shops are all shut, and all that can be done has been done. It’s hard to describe and I am unsure of its origin, but it arrives like a benison from heaven and is like a sweet balm on sore skin, easing away pain and anxiety and suffering.
The best I have ever been able to do is to put some of my responses into poetry.
Deep bliss, a feeling of velvet inside
An inarticulate rightness of being,
brightness of being right
And I cannot tell why or how
This feeling comes:
A simple certainty that all shall be well,
Now and always.
I cannot capture this feeling, pin down
And dissect it, tear its secrets apart
To reveal the truth I already know.
An image of bright butterflies,
The lark rising with its song,
A moment of purest knowing
Beyond that of intellect
And I sit here now,
Christmas Eve 2003
Day Twenty Three
I’d be the first to admit I have a poor singing voice and don’t enjoy singing very much but at this time of the year, neither fact matters. Winter songs, carols and other music are so much a part of this season that even those who usually sing out of tune find, almost miraculously, find themselves able to carry a tune. The tunes of our most popular carols are probably quite ancient, and the words embedded (to some extent) in the brains of a lot of people. Most of us who grew up in this country went to schools where assemblies included a small (often quite nominal) religious content, but during the run up to Christmas, the nativity play is ubiquitous along with about ten carols that almost everyone knows.
I have about ten or fifteen CDs that I can play only at this time of year. Some are by my favourite singer, Canadian Lorena McKennit, and include less well know carols like the Coventry Carol. Another favourite is Maddy Prior (and her Carnival Band), who sings some of the most ancient of carols like The Boar’s Head. Another is flute music played by a good friend of mine, Jane de Silva, and sent instead of a Christmas card. I have also a CD of Latin chants for the season, sung medieval style. I cherish the few weeks a year when I can legitimately play these CDs.
I sometimes even sing along…
Day Twenty Two
Christmas food traditions
Every country has its seasonal specialities for food and drink. We’re tending to lose some of them because almost everything can be grown somewhere and shipped to us (at significant costs) so the seasonal food traditions are becoming blurred now. When you can have crisp, fresh apples any day of the year (often shipped from Chile) people don’t get excited about the arrival of the first Coxes from our own orchards.
Traditional foods for this country have changed, and not so subtly, over the centuries. At one time, the standard Christmas dinner was a big haunch of beef; later, goose, and now it tends to be turkey. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which is a good reason why people fall asleep after Christmas dinner as this is used in health supplements for insomnia and sleep problems.
Certain delicacies are only on sale in the shops at this time of year; our local deli has already run out of marzipan stollen. My late father-in-law loved mince pies so much that my mother-in-law used to make them all year round, from scratch. She made the best mince pies I’ve ever tasted, serving them hot, the pastry lids flipped up to insert a dollop of brandy butter before sticking the lid down and putting them in the oven for a few minutes to melt the butter and crisp up the pastry.
I’m not a huge fan of mince pies myself; I can take them or leave them, but I like the history of them. It’s a myth that they were once banned by law (during the Commonwealth, while this country was a republic under Cromwell) but they were seen as idolatrous and frivolous by the Puritans. All the more reason in my mind to keep the tradition going! If you follow the two links, you can find out more of the history of the humble mince pie, and an original recipe for the savoury type that my ancestors enjoyed.
Day Twenty One
The winter solstice this year falls tomorrow (22nd of December), and is the shortest day of the year. The date on which the Solstice falls is slightly variable, from the 20th to the 23rd though it is rare for it to fall on the 20th or the 23rd (there’s complicated reasons why it varies and I’m scared of getting the explanation wrong and looking stupid, so do look it up). The word solstice comes from Latin, meaning the sun stands still, and that is what happens. For a few days, everything is held in this strange holding pattern before the days begin lengthening again. For me, there is a huge relief in this.
Sunrise on the winter solstice is a powerfully moving moment; the reality of watching it can be cold, wet and somewhat of a damp squib if you expect magical rays and invisible choirs.
I wrote the following poem last year and it sums up the feeling of expectancy and emptiness that I experience at this time of year:
I will hold a space
A dark space
An empty place
A hallowed hollow,
Cupped between hands
Hidden between breaths
Lost between heartbeats
Harrowed from soul-falls.
I will hold a space
Angel lights and angel chimes
The putting up of the Christmas decorations is my cue to get out my collection of angel lights, and also the angel chimes. Angel lights are little metal whirligigs that hold a candle; the heat from the flame rises and sets the thing spinning. I have five or six, all with slightly different pendant themes; some have angels, some have deer, some have stars. When they spin they create patterns of light and swirling shadows in a darkened room. It’s a simple, magical thing that brings me great pleasure.
I wrote a short Christmas tale about an angel light that you can read here.
Unexpected Kindness and Goodwill
Amid the elbow-gouging frenzy of consumer madness, there are gleams and glimmers of something closer to the proper spirit of Christmas. Acts of kindness and courtesy shine out here and there, and lighten the days.
Look for them. Create them. Remark on them. Share them. These are the things that remind us of the core of this winter festival that predates the name it bears but which prefigure its arrival, for time is not truly linear and goodness transcends the limitations of our understanding of time and space.
Putting up the decorations
You may well already have the decorations up, but we’re almost always later in the month than most. I don’t like the way that putting up the decs has crept in earlier and earlier over the years, nor yet the fact that many people take them all down on Boxing Day, or even Christmas afternoon. It shocks me, because it seems to make Christmas entirely about the run up to opening presents and then having a huge meal.
Each year, when the big box of decorations comes down from the loft, I look forward to greeting old friends. I’ve never understood how anyone can buy a whole new set each year and throw the old ones away. Every item in the box carries warm memories, from the set of exquisite glass hedgehogs from my old friend Maria, to the bag of clove oranges. Putting up the tree, each decoration is chosen and held with love. As a child it was a process that was always done by my dad; the box included a set of handmade silvered glass baubles he’d made himself. He used to work in a pathology lab in the late 1950s and one of the skills needed was glass blowing as you had to made much of your own equipment. One year he made about 8 perfect little baubles, silvered them with silver nitrate and took them home for his first Christmas as a married man. The fifties in Britain were a time of austerity; rationing was still in place for the first half of the decade and scarcity abounded. Those baubles survived several moves, but by the time I was in my teens, there was only one left, and then sadly, that too was broken.
The first year we lived here, I found a set of baubles in a local antique shop, not antique but craft made in India, that were very like the ones Dad made. They have taken the same place, standing in for the ones broken or lost decades ago, in my family annals of good memories.