The love that dares to speak its name
Things are starting to hot up a bit for the holidays. Or should that be cool down? We are in the grip of another blast of Arctic weather, with biting winds and flurries of gritty snow, and plenty more forecast for the weekend. Despite the past week’s thaw (temperatures got above freezing almost every day!) there is still plenty of old snow and ice around, so it is all looking very Christmassy, if your imagination is that way inclined. Mine is. I dare to stand up and admit it: I love Christmas. There.
Of course there is a great deal to do to organise a traditional family Christmas, with presents to buy and cards to write and meals to organise and food to order and decorations to put up and beds to make and guests to look after and and and. So yes, it does get stressful, and I am usually feeling very tired and deeply antisocial by New Year. Our Christmas lasts pretty well the full twelve days, with relatives visiting, a family pheasant shoot to organise between Christmas and New Year and a huge festive football match held in the snow outside the castle on Hogmanay. But we don’t have to do it all. We do it because (a) it is traditional, (b) we like traditions and (c) we even actually like our extended family! At this time of year, we close down the commercial side of the castle and it reverts to being an old-fashioned family seat. For these twelve days or so, my husband can relax a little and remember that the castle is a pleasure and a blessing, not just a massive responsibility. We put up a big tree in the drawing room and light fires, and sing carols around the grand piano (this is a family of singers and piano players) and enjoy using the large, formal rooms that only ‘work’ when they are full of friends and family.
I love the slightly Dickensian feel of a traditional Christmas in the castle. I also love the more ancient undertones of Christmas, as best evoked by the carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
‘The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
Oh the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer, the playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.’
Don’t you think that the references to organs and choirs sound like an afterthought? To me they seem like a medieval nod to Christianity, tacked on to much older allusions to the solstice, the rising sun, and the pre-Christian symbolism of the running stag and the greenwood flourishing in the depths of winter.
This ancient symbolism is very evocative here away from city lights, in the long dark nights and the woods full of deer. It feels as if not much of the essence of winter has changed over the centuries. For that reason, the hearty carols like ‘God rest ye, merry gentlemen’ are equally appealing, with their Falstaffian jolliness to banish the shadows. One that I heard this week and very much enjoyed is ‘Masters in this Hall’. It sounds rather sixteenth-century but was in fact written by William Morris (1834-96), that lover of all things pre-industrial. Despite its title, its lyrics are not about the rich but about the shepherds and poor folk who first recognised the baby Jesus as their Messiah. I heard it beautifully sung by the school choir at our elder son’s end of term carol service.
This is Christ the Lord,
Masters be ye glad!
Christmas is come in
And no folk should be sad.
Whether or not you believe in the Christmas story, that is a good thought for us all in the dark days of winter. Bring in gladness, banish sadness. That is why I love Christmas.