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 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.
The Glastonbury Thorn
Glastonbury is one of my favourite places on earth for all sorts of reasons but one such reason is the existence of the Glastonbury Thorn. According to legend, tin merchant Joseph of Arimathea, uncle of Jesus, came to England bringing with him the boy Jesus. He returned years later to the place, and hid the holy grail somewhere close to where the Chalice Well is now, and walking up Wearyall Hill, he put his staff in the ground and as he leaned on it, the stick took root and burst into leaf and flower. The tree became known as the Glastonbury Thorn tree, and cuttings of it were taken and a specimen of the tree lives in the churchyard of St John’s church in the town to this day. One of the most remarkable things about the tree is that it blooms twice a year; once in May like any normal hawthorn and once in December. A sprig from the tree complete with blooms is sent each year to grace the Queen’s breakfast table.
For a more detailed account of the thorn please read here:
During the winter months hot drinks are even more important than at other times of the year, especially if you aren’t in full health. They can restore normal body temperature and keep you hydrated. Being a Brit, I love my tea but during the winter, most days I enjoy a mug of chai tea too. Chai (made the British way rather than the Indian way) is slightly spicy, with cinnamon, cardamoms and other delicious additions to the usual black tea, served usually with milk and sugar/honey. It’s warming and cheering; the spices have mild medicinal properties too so if you are feeling below par, chai might give you the extra fillip of ooomph to keep going and to help your body fight any bugs you might be subject to. You can buy chai tea bags too, for convenience; tea merchants Twinings do an excellent version. There are often also specialist Christmas teas that are really versions of chai, but marketed at the seasonal shoppers. If you like tea, give chai a chance to warm and cheer you on a chilly, dull, dark, dank winter day.