Tradition gathers around Christmas. Pageants and homecomings and longed-for preparations repeat themselves year after year and become treasured lifetime rituals. I have lived 57 years in what long ago became my beloved home Guyana and I have spent 56 Christmases here. Over the last 30 years I have come to know and with a heart full of thanks look forward to the ceremonies of the season created by my wife.
From the start and forever these are for the children but I also joyfully benefit: the fresh curtains and polished furniture and the stored Christmas cloths and tableware brought out, the fruit liquor-set for the Christmas cake, the sorrel drink brewed and spiced, the mince pie filling made lovingly by hand, the fragrances of celebration beginning to circulate, the bottles of sweets and plates of nuts on the table, the ham baked and, nearer the time, the meats for garlic pork soaked and readied and the pepperpot prepared, carols from favourite CDs singing in the home, messages written in Christmas cards and sent to family and friends, the gifts wrapped and ribboned. And then the home and garden illuminated with glowing decorations and a wondrous world of lights to match the starry heavens – helped in this for so many years by Alston and Lennox whose work of wonder this also is. Last of all my wife spends long hours decorating the Christmas tree, carefully and lovingly each light and bright crystal and stream of tinsel adroitly placed. I sip a glass or two of wine and love all the unfolding festival. It makes me aware there can be such brightness and love in the world.
But Christmas is also about the unique drama of a miraculous birth intended to save all mankind. It does not mark some gentle, festive, reassuring and comfortable everyday event. It involves an occurrence that shook the world and shakes it to this day. This is why I have a special liking for Ted Hughes’s Christmas poem Minstrel’s Song which gives some feeling and sense of the tremendous drama, strangeness and searing impact of this birth that re-started history.
by Ted Hughes
I’ve just had an astounding dream as I lay in the straw.
I dreamed a star fell on to the straw beside me
And lay blazing. Then when I looked up
I saw a bull come flying through a sky of fire
And on its shoulders a huge silver woman
Holding the moon. And afterwards there came
A donkey flying through that same burning heaven
And on its shoulders a colossal man
Holding the sun. Suddenly I awoke
And saw a bull and a donkey kneeling in the straw,
And the great moving shadows of a man and a woman –
I say they were a man and a woman but
I dare not say what I think they were. I did not dare to look.
I ran out here into the freezing world
Because I dared not look. Inside that shed.
A star is coming this way along the road.
If I were not standing upright, this would be a dream.
A star the shape of a sword of fire, point-downward,
Is floating along the road. And now it rises.
It is shaking fire on to the roofs and the gardens.
And now it rises above the animal shed
Where I slept till the dream woke me. And now
The star is standing over the animal shed.
Above all, at the beginning and in the end, Christmas is about love. We are to believe, and it is no bad belief to have, that it is God’s infinite love for mankind which caused Christ’s coming. An overwhelming gift of love came upon mankind and still and forever gives us hope that evil will be withstood. Through the centuries Christmas has come to stand for many things beyond its original meaning – not least, in recent times, a wonderful opportunity to make money. But still Christmas has never lost what is at its heart – God’s gift of love and mankind’s reciprocal love for Christ and his mother. At Christmas all gifts should be gifts renewing love.
It is why I read the great love poems at Christmas time especially – the poems of love of God and the poems also in which love is shown in this world in never-ending images of passion and loyalty and beauty. Every year there are poems to add from a bountiful harvest. This year I select as a Christmas offering to all my family and friends and everyone a traditional Irish poem sent to me by an old and treasured friend Philip O’Meara: Bennacht – Blessing, translated from the Irish by John O’Donahue.
On the day when
The weight deadens your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the curragh of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life…
Bless this great land of ours. Bless its people. Bless the children especially. Bless their future.