The word, leaden, to describe the skies, must have been coined by an Englishman. The very definition of the term defines the winter skies in England. It’s a pefect word, too, because it gives not only the colour, a dark, dull grey; it also gives a sense of suppression, a sense of the heavy weight on our emotions, here under those skies. When, rarely, the sun breaks through for an hour or so, our elation is dashed by the inevitable return of the leaden skies, often with rain.
This greyness of days is coupled with the long, dark nights that begin to close over us in September, and reach their longest on December 2st. Sunset is earlier and sunrise later each day. Here, it is dark by 3:30 or so, and in a week it will be dark by 3:00.
All of this, for many of us, saps our energy and even deadens enthusiasm for our usual everyday enjoyment of life’s good moments.
No wonder ancient peoples needed to have a festival, a celebration day, in the middle of this season. And no wonder the ancient Christian church picked December 25th, when the days are just starting to get longer again, to be Jesus’s birthday. Who cares when it really was? We need the celebration now; we need to say, yes, the clouds will lift and we will see more light . . . maybe not soon, but eventually.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein Our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
Every year, I try to find a new book about Christmas for my collection. This year, I found it at the National Theatre Shop– a surprise, because the shop, for obvious reasons, features theatre related items like scripts, actors’ memoirs and NT tee shirts.
The Book of Christmas is a delight.
Struthers covers everything from the selection of the date for Christmas to the first Nativity scene, Santa/Sinter Klass/Father Christmas in all his many guises, weird and wonderful customs (and some you wouldn’t want to try for anything!) decking the halls, Christmas feasting– and lots of other topics. The chapter on celebrating Christmas during hard times is particularly interesting to me.
I am enjoying it thoroughly.
John L’Heuruex, now emeritus professor of Stanford University and well-known novelist and poet, then a Jesuit seminarian, wrote in his journal, Picnic in Babylon, on Christmas, 1963:
Tom O’Gorman, who says Mass for the workmen here, told me this story. While the priest says the Gospel in Latin, one of the workmen reads it aloud in English to the little congregation. Tom says he distinctly heard the chap say in his Negro velvet voice, “And the wise men brought gifts of gold and mirth and frankenstein.” And no one laughed. Terrific.
The book is now out of print, and my copy is literally taped together because the binding has long since disintegrated. L’Heureux has a wicked sense of humour. His novels are always both sinister and funny.
This poem touched me. I have no idea if it’s still in print or in copyright. All I know is that it’s by Grace Noll Crowell and it appeared in a collection in 1940. I really love it.
I shall attend to my little errands of love early this year,
So that the brief days before Christmas may be
Unhampered and clear
Of the fever of hurry. The breathless rushing
that I have known in the past
Shall not possess me. I shall be calm in my soul
And ready at last
I shall have leisure– I shall go out alone
From my roof and my door;
I shall not miss the silver silence of stars
As I have before;
And, oh, perhaps– If I stand there very still,
And very long–
I shall hear what the clamor of living has kept from me;
The Angels’ song!