For me, Christmas is always a journey, and a long train journey at that. The old strict-regime English boarding schools may have robbed their inmates of many small, warm, things, but mine gave me this gift – the annual delight of the return home, warm yellow lights at the end of a long slow progress through frosty hills and woods, full of anticipation, with the red sun excitingly low in the cold, clear sky.
Scott Fitzgerald had much the same experience, as he described in ‘The Great Gatsby’, of ‘the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow’.
I think many people have some similar sensation. It is absolutely no good if the journey has been too easy or too comfortable. We cannot feel properly warm and safe unless we have at least felt the edge of the wind and feared being caught in the storm. Arcangelo Corelli, in his Concerto for the Night of Christmas, always seems to me to convey a searing, exhilarating cold, to emphasise the warmth and light that are coming.
John Masefield, in ‘The Box of Delights’ gave Kay Harker an enchanted, if worrying, homeward journey. It’s the low, clear light that does it. Kay looks up at the hills from the train window, and thinks ‘It was a grim winter morning, threatening a gale. Something in the light, with its hard sinister clearness, gave mystery and dread to those hills.
“They look just the sort of hills,” Kay said to himself, “where you might come upon a Dark Tower, and blow a horn at the gate for something to happen.”’
A journey, and not necessarily an easy one, was no bad thing to associate with Christmas. The ancient story is full of journeys, the last-minute struggle to Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, the coming of the Magi.
Lancelot Andrewes described the hard voyage of the Wise Men, as he preached before King James the First on Christmas Day 1622. T.S. Eliot later rather naughtily repeated much of the passage without mentioning Andrewes.
‘Last, we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.’
The very dead of winter which, as it happens, I love. Oh, that we were there. Voices ring more clearly and light shines more brightly in clean, cold air. The celebration of a birth is made more joyous because it foreshadows a death.
The terrifying line from the carol, ‘sealed in a stone-cold tomb’ cuts like a blade through what would otherwise be cloying sweetness. Cold purifies and exhilarates. I have never understood how anyone could want to celebrate Christmas next to a hot beach. And, time and again, I’ve found myself hurrying homewards in the days before the feast, through somewhere cold and dark, reminded of the thrilling returning journeys of my youth.
From divided Berlin, slipping in seconds from the lighted circle of freedom into the black dark of oppression, and then mercifully out again; to Bucharest in the middle of a revolution, imagining gunfire on the horizon ( or was it real? I’ve never been certain) as the shabby train trundled past fleece-clad shepherds into gloomy mountains; carting a scrawny tree through the slush of Communist Moscow, so as to celebrate the birth of a subversive Saviour; hurrying home from Baghdad in a nervous convoy, swerving round the craters in the highway provided by the US Air Force, reading Dorothy L. Sayers to take my mind off the endless, menacing desert and the nasty rumours of armed robbers on the way.
As Lancelot Andrewes put it ‘This was nothing pleasant, for through deserts, all the way waste and desolate. Nor secondly, easy neither; for over the rocks and crags of both Arabias, specially Petra, their journey lay. Yet if safe, but it was not, but exceeding dangerous, as lying through the midst of the black tents of Kedar, a nation of thieves and cut-throats; to pass over the hills of robbers, infamous then, and infamous to this day.’
Now, if we still did Christmas properly, it would only just be starting tonight. Having celebrated the Nativity, we would now be anticipating the Feast of Stephen, perhaps providing flesh, wine and pine-logs to nearby poor peasants. Then there would be St John the Evangelist’s Day, Holy Innocents’ Day (not an occasion for jollity), the Circumcision of Christ and finally the Epiphany itself. For the last four weeks we would have been marking Advent, a severely penitential season, not without fear:
‘I look from afar and lo, I see the power of God coming and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say “Tell us: art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?”
Mattins Responsory – CD: Advent from St Pauls. (St Pauls Cathedral Choir)
But these days Advent can only be dimly seen, a dark and shuttered old church beyond the superstore and behind the multi-storey car park, unlit amid the commercial riot of jingle, sparkle and glare. There’s some fun to be had in fighting a lonely battle against this, fasting through the gluttony, though only if you don’t try to feel superior to everyone else. But, just as hardly anyone observes Advent, nobody really gives Christmas its full twelve days.
So what actually lies beyond Christmas Day is flat disappointment, every sense stirred and tuned to expect something marvellous, and then just a lot to eat and drink, a few presents and a long, numb celebration of the miraculous birth of TV. By this point in the year I usually find myself staring out of a window at the suburban night, wondering where we shall all be a twelvemonth hence.
And yet, at some point, there’s always a brief moment of delight, the lighted doorway shining in the darkness, the warmth of return, the certain welcome – now as a father and a husband rather than as a child. I’ve usually managed to contrive a long journey first. Like all such arrivals, it’s rapidly swallowed up in little duties, discoveries and squabbles, but for a few seconds it’s an anticipation of what really matters, the true homecoming that Christmas actually promises.
And yet that most important homecoming will require a grimmer and a colder journey than I have yet undertaken. Eliot describes the paradox: ‘I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.’
And again ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. So, I hope, anyway.
Coventry Carol – (The Swingle Singers)