Christmas

The Feast of the Epiphany

Sunday, 6 January, 2019

“How Real Is The Meaning?” That was the question posed by Walter Russell Mead some years ago in a meditation on the Feast of the Epiphany. Taking as his starting point the Biblical account of the Three Kings who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem, Mead went on a long journey into a meaning that’s centered on this question: How much of the Christmas story is “real” and how much of both this story — and ultimately the entire record of the Scriptures — is historically accurate? It’s all very apt for today’s Feast of the Epiphany. Mead’s conclusion:

“The wise men who followed the star were led to the center of all things. They did not understand the difference between astronomy and astrology as well as we do, but they used what they knew to get to where they needed to be.

It was enough for them, and people today can still do the same thing. We can follow the light we have to the center of all things, to a place that both shepherds and scholars can find, and when we arrive, like both the shepherds and the wise men, we will find that it has what we need.”

Painting: The Adoration of the Magi is an early work by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting was thoroughly investigated by The Bosch Research and Conservation Project and an analysis revealed a palette consisting of the typical pigments employed in the Renaissance period, such as azurite, lead-tin yellow, carmine and gold leaf.

The Magi


Christmas Day

Tuesday, 25 December, 2018

The scene portrayed in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is magically real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this work from a Christmas past when the poet was “six Christmases of age” captures that childhood world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually, but in an instant three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, Kavanagh says, erases the innocence of childhood but that innocence resurfaces at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas happy.

A Christmas Childhood

I

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)

We wish all readers of Rainy Day a healthy Christmas.


The twelfth post of pre-Christmas 2018: December

Monday, 24 December, 2018

And thus ends our review of the year as posted by Rainy Day since 1 January this year. The last post in this pre-Christmas 2018 series dates from 10 December and it was titled, “Street Fighting Man in Paris, then and now.” The reason for picking this post are twofold: firstly, the mouvement des gilets jaunes, which has exposed the hollowness at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s own “movement” and, secondly, the 50th anniversary of Street Fighting Man by the Rolling Stones. There is a synchronicity, as Jung would say.

********

Fifty years ago, the Rolling Stones released their Beggars Banquet album. It contained what’s been called the group’s “most political song,” Street Fighting Man. Mick Jagger said that he found partial inspiration for the song in the violence among student rioters in Paris during the run up to the civil unrest of May 1968. Quote:

“It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions … I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of Street Fighting Man, the band have released a video of the song featuring the lyrics. Uncannily, this is again a strange time in France. Whether M. Macron will go into a complete funk and lock himself into his house in the country remains to be seen. Those French riot police are still amazing, though.

Tomorrow, here, something less disruptive: Christmas Day as seen through the eyes of a poet who was once six Christmases of age.


Adventus

Saturday, 1 December, 2018

The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” and the central theme of Advent is the coming of Christ to earth. The Advent season begins tomorrow and it’s observed by Christian churches as a time of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas.

The Coming by R.S. Thomas, a 20th century Anglican poet-priest from Wales, centres on a conversation between the Father and Son about the suffering of humanity. Thomas invokes the hardship of life in a small farming community in rural Wales, but his “scorched land” could refer to any country torn by conflict: Syria, Yemen, Ukraine…

Thomas imagines the Son’s response to the suffering and pain the Father asks him to look at, but the decision is reserved until the final line. Looking at the “bare hill” and the “thin arms” of the hungry people, the Son finally responds: “Let me go there.”

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

R.S. Thomas (1913 – 2000)


Good people all, this Christmas time

Tuesday, 26 December, 2017 0 Comments

William Grattan Flood was the musical director at St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, at the end of the 19th century. He transcribed this traditional song from a local singer and it was published in the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928 as “The Wexford Carol”. The performance here by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma is sublime.

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born


Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood was ours, too

Monday, 25 December, 2017 0 Comments

The world evoked in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is both magical and real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this poem from a Christmas when he was six years old captures that mysterious childhood moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually in one line but in another three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, says Kavanagh, erases the innocence of childhood but it does resurface, especially at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas wonderful.

A Christmas Childhood

I

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


Remembering the crowded-out ones

Sunday, 24 December, 2017 0 Comments

In her essay, “The Light in the Dark”, which was published in the American edition of Vogue in 1950, Elizabeth Bowen pondered her own childhood and the meaning of the Christ child. Her love of the Nativity didn’t prevent her, however, from accepting that Christmas is, for many, a time of desperation:

“There are those whom Christmas touches only by its bitter meaningless to them — for this is a season to which natural indifference is impossible; those who dread or hate it shrink from its power. And — multiplied by the catastrophes of the world there are the derelict, the placeless; those who are where they are under duress, or those who find themselves by sheer bleak fortuity, without ties or love. Of these many, how few can be comforted — at least concretely; the practical reach and scope of our giving, in view of this trouble, can but seem poor and small. We can, only, humbly keep these unknown in mind — which is to say in imagination. The Child was born of his travel-wearied Mother in a stable because there was no room at the inn. Is not this a time to remember the crowded-out ones? Now is it, at Christmas, when we feel to the full the happiest implications of being human, that the sense of all other humanity most insistently presses against our doors and windows. To meet it, we send out into the dark some thought — however groping, vague and unformulated. Who is to say, at this season, what mystic circuit may set itself up between man and man?”

Elizabeth Bowen, like T.S. Eliot, placed Christianity at the core of her meditations on Christmas and that’s why her words continue to resonate.

Elizabeth Bowen


The Christmas Toast: Home!

Saturday, 23 December, 2017 0 Comments

“The art of living beautifully…” is the motto of Homes & Gardens, a monthly magazine that has been published in London since 1919. The December 1942 issue featured an article by Elizabeth Bowen titled “The Christmas Toast is ‘Home!’ and an editor’s note accompanying the war-time piece pointed out, with typical British understatement, that “travelling may be impossible, none but the plainest food may be procurable and the Xmas holiday itself may make unexpected demands on our time and energy.” It was in this context that Elizabeth Bowen celebrated the meaning of “home” at Christmas:

“Above all, the home means people — their trust in each other, their happy habits of living, the calendar, year by year, of family life — returning seasons, anniversaries, birthdays and, above all, Christmas, the greatest home festival. At Christmas, how strong the pull of the home is! There comes a call that our hearts cannot deny. At Christmas, we turn to our own people: we go home. And, when the Christmas journey cannot be made in real life, it is made with all the more longing, in the imagination. The Christmas letter, or telegram from the exile to the people at home, saying, ‘I am with you today,’ speaks a real truth. At Christmas, wherever we find ourselves, our hearts are back in the beloved place.”

When Elizabeth Bowen was writing those words, the news was filled with reports of crucial battles in far-away places: Stalingrad, El Alamein, Guadalcanal. The very survival of civilization was at stake, but Bowen was resolute in her belief in victory. “Peace will see many homecomings,” she predicted, and the light of Christmas gave her hope. “Christmas speaks the message of an eternal kindness. The Christmas Toast is – Home!'”

Elizabeth Bowen

Tomorrow, here, those whom Christmas touches only by its bitter meaningless.


Happy New Year!

Sunday, 1 January, 2017 0 Comments

Resolution for 2017: “Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.” — Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The fire


Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 25 December, 2016 0 Comments

The journey of a “A rugged billion miles” has many twists and turns said the poet Emily Dickinson. The task of developing a moral vision is arduous and it’s a hard road we’ve been travelling since Bethlehem but we do have a guide. Now that we’ve arrived at Christmas Day, let’s recall those who introduced us to its true meaning. On behalf of the Rainy Day team: Happy Christmas!

The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman –
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen –

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be
A rugged Billion Miles –

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)


I Believe In Father Christmas

Saturday, 24 December, 2016 0 Comments

As 2016 entered its final stretch, the Grim Reaper, who had begun with David Bowie on 10 January, called to the home of Greg Lake on 7 December. The English guitarist, singer and songwriter gained early fame as a founding member of the progressive rock bands King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but he’s anchored in popular memory with the song that launched his solo career in 1975: “I Believe in Father Christmas”. It was interpreted as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas, but Lake countered that the lyrics are about a loss of innocence and childhood belief:

“They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
‘Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
‘Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise.”

Keith Emerson, who killed himself in March, loved classical music, and he suggested adding an instrumental riff between verses. Thus the “Troika” portion of Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite was included. The video, by the way, was partly shot in the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

“I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.”