We were at the school carol service on Thursday night. The quality of the music was astounding, and I am so glad that both our daughters have had the opportunity to be part of such good choirs and ensembles. Our younger daughter was down to read “The Night Before Christmas”, but to our relief – and hers – this item was pulled from the programme. Our daughter said it would be social suicide for her to read it with any degree of animation; and we ourselves think it is a piece that is over-used, given its dubious literary merit.
She was also reading a commentary on a couple of scenes from “A Christmas Carol”. The literary merit of Dickens is less open to challenge; I do quite like the book, and part of me still buys into the sentimental, sugary Christmas of the Victorian era which lies behind so many of the traditions. I love the candles and the carols; but the words even of some of the best-loved don’t really bear much scrutiny. For instance, just check out the view of childhood in “Once in Royal David’s City” —
So there wasn’t much challenge or new thinking in the school carol service, and maybe I shouldn’t have expected it there. But hasn’t anyone written anything worthwhile about Christmas since Dickens? Well, yes, they have; and to be fair, the piece I want to talk about is far from new either. It may even fall into the “overused” category itself. But I think it’s more real: it’s about expectations and the actual, and, far from being florid and over the top, it’s understated. It’s T S Eliot again, borrowing shamelessly from other writers as usual, but coming up with “The Journey of the Magi”. In case you don’t know it, here’s the link to it:
I think this is full of great images, and I especially love the rhythmic tension in the last stanza. However my focus just now is on the line:
It was (you may say) satisfactory.
After all that journeying, searching, waiting and effort, that was what it came down to for Eliot’s wise men. They were clearly changed by their journey and their meeting with the Christ child, returning afterwards only uneasily to their old lives, uncertain about the experience they had had. But “satisfactory” was the only word Eliot gives them for that climactic moment which (presumably) they had longed for.
Feels a bit like Christmas to me – the long run-up to it, and the flat bleak days of January that follow after you take the decorations down. And given that I can’t re-capture the Christmasses of my childhood (when the tinsel and the paper chains were so beautiful, and Father Christmas was a fact); nor those of my believing days (and that was something – grappling, amazed, with the notion of God incarnate); nor even those of my children’s early years now, it’s not going to live up to the hype, is it?
I’m done with Christmas expectations, so I’ll settle for “satisfactory”: listening to, singing and maybe even playing some lovely music; a party or two; a few treats; relaxed time with those I love. And maybe just a hint of mystery and wonder. Because on Christmas Day, by late afternoon, it seems to me that the whole world holds its breath. There’s a stillness: everything stops. We down tools, and for a short while there is nothing we have to do. It’s a moment of rest, perhaps, before we pick up our baggage again to meet the coming year.
Today is the Winter Solstice. I always feel a small sense of relief when we get here. This is as dark as it will get. I know that it (and possibly I) won’t feel perceptibly brighter for quite a long time yet – not till February really; but after today, the light is on its way back.