So this is Christmas
Like most of us, I navigate and feel comforted by the traditions that we wheel out at this time of year; the foods that we cook, the people we see, the stories we tell, the songs that we sing. And this year, perhaps more than ever, we want and need to feel comfort, to have a sense that we know where we are.
Songs can speak to us, unlock memory, carry stories; before we could read and write we passed our histories through song by firelight. At Christmas we might sing carols, pulling them out like dusty decorations from the loft. We might not believe in the story that they tell, any more than we believe in the existence of the Holly King or flying reindeer, but stories don’t have to be true to give us hope. And what is the Christmas story if not one of hope?
Good King Wencelaslas
During our first Christmas in a new home, far away from friends and family, from all that was familiar, I went up to the village square to join in with the carol singing. Christmas remains one of the few times each year that I might sing with others. When we sing carols, it doesn’t matter if we’re tone deaf or have no sense of rhythm, if we can’t read music or remember all the words. It’s about connecting to something else. I stood, amongst a crowd of strangers, buttoned up against the northerly wind, while the light spilled from the pub and the dog pulled at his lead, eager to talk to all the other dogs on leads, to the children reaching out to run small hands through his soft black curls.
Somebody handed around hymn sheets, the same ones as in cold childhood churches; Mum in her best coat, wearing lipstick and smelling of Paris perfume, my brothers, pinching each other and making faces at the other end of the pew. There were the familiar, jewel-coloured illustrations and rounded black font, inked on paper as thin and cheerful as the paper that came, 10 sheets for a pound, from a rack on a Guildford market stall. Paper that was rich with ruby reds, emerald greens, robins and bells, snowmen with carrot noses and stripy scarves; Joyeux Noel and Seasons Greetings stretching, in swirling white letters, across it.
Somebody rattled a bucket as the choirmaster steered us through a dozen carols; here was ‘Away in the Manger’ with the lowing cattle, here ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ with its dramatic, shouty, crescendo. And here was ‘Good King Wenceslas’, the Victorian retelling of the legend of the 10th century Bohemian duke, canonized for his habit of wandering barefoot in the Czech snow to dispense alms to the needy;
‘Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay ’round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel’
The men joined together to do the booming voice of the king, and the women and children did the voice of the page, though some of us did both, because that’s more fun. We played our parts, recreating the story and remembering the childish delight of saying ‘sod’ in front of the vicar. We sang words like ‘hither’ and ‘thither’ and ‘dinted’, as if we used them everyday, enjoying making two syllables out of cruel and fuel; ‘cru-el’ and ‘fu-el’, to fit the 13th century melody. And I felt that I had always sung with these people, that we were not strangers anymore.
Each family has their own stories. You might, like me, have learned the stories by rote, as a child, with a child’s understanding. One of our stories tells of my maternal grandparents, Lorna and Victor, meeting for the first time at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. The storm clouds of war and fascism are gathering apace over mainland Europe. They are balanced on upturned fruit boxes to speak in defence of the League of Nations, an international organisation dedicated to promoting peace, because they still believe in its possibility. Perhaps it is a crisp Sunday morning in February 1938, the park busy with men in suits, women in dresses, everyone wearing hats, gloves and buttonholes. Perhaps too, there is the smell of exhaust fumes coming from the buses on the nearby Bayswater Road, mixing with the sweet aroma of hot chestnuts on the brazier, selling for sixpence a bag at the park gates.
After they were married, Lorna and Victor moved out of their Fulham home, weary of nights spent sheltering from bombs on the Underground, to a place that was quieter, the night skies inky black. They moved to a house at the top of a steep sandy lane, root-bound and tree-darkened. After the war they kept up the friendships they’d made while campaigning and helped to organise an annual tour of the Choir of Nations. On a December night in 1952, a green bus shuddered to a halt and its occupants, the visiting choir, chattering in French and German, Italian and Spanish and dressed in white, with crowns of candles, climbed down into the darkness. They processed, up the long box-lined path, to the front door, the frost spangling the grass, the huge cedar looming in the dark and casting long shadows in the moonlight; the air smelling of coalfires, earthy and sharp.
‘It’s angels,’ my mother said, running to the door to watch the procession, candle crowns flickering in the glide up the path as they sang;
‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!’
just as German soldiers in the trenches outside La Chapelle-d’Armentieres had sung across the battlefield to their British counterparts on Christmas Eve in 1914.
Hark the Herald Angels
December was unrelentingly wet and grey that first year in our new home. But then Christmas day dawned, blue and green and gold. We set out with the dog, stopping on the little stone bridge to look at the swollen river, at the lakes and ponds, formed after all the recent rainfall, in the lower stretch of the grassy valley. We climbed the sloping road, lined with oaks whose twisted black branches touched the sky, their stippled girths tendrilled with ivy. At Creedy Widger we called hellos to the bullocks who looked up with soft black eyes from the silage feeders in the barn. The day was so still, so quiet. It felt as though, apart from the sheep and cattle, the birds twitching in the hedges, we might be the only creatures alive.
When we reached the little Norman church at Upton Hellions we were halted by the unfamiliar feel of sunshine on our backs. From the cottage next door a thread of woodsmoke wound from its chimney into the blue sky.
In the high windows of the church we could see trails of holly and ivy, red candles flickering. And then, to our surprise, there came the sound of a man’s low voice from inside, the rumble of an organ, the shuffle and scrape of a congregation rising to their feet. There was the sound of throats clearing, and then singing;
‘Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!’
And for a moment we became a part of that congregation, feeling it stretch out to draw close to us all the people that we loved, so far away. This moment has become a part of our story – the one that we tell about our first Christmas in a new home, in a new place.
It might not be possible to go carolling in the square this year, or to gather and celebrate in the usual ways, but I hope that we can all still find a song to sing and wish you peace and love, connection and compassion, in the coming year.