Promises of special things

Inverted commas 5: Will Stanton’s Christmas

Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in the corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that.

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) Will Stanton’s family is preparing for the great day in their little corner of England. The conifer, grown locally, is fetched into the house:

When they carried the tree ceremonially through the front door, the twins seized it with cross-boards and screwdrivers, to give it a base. At the other end of the room Mary and Barbara sat in a rustling sea of coloured paper, cutting it into strips, red, yellow, blue, green, and gluing them into interlocked circles for paper-chains.

For them, as for many families, the decorating of the tree is left to the night before, all such ornamentation remaining until Twelfth Night when the Feast of the Epiphany (marking the visit by the Three Magi) takes place.

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.

All of the foregoing sounds like many a traditional Christmas. The next day there will be the visit to the village church for the Christmas Day service. But little else is overtly religious — the tree, the yule log, the preparations for feasting, the paper chains and greenery strewn around, all smack of a pagan midwinter festival more than the advent of a deity. At the local Manor the songs remain resolutely heathen in inspiration: a traditional wassailing song, the lullaby known as the Coventry Carol, Good King Wenceslas based on a medieval Bohemian legend.

And then Will later will find himself reading lines from The Book of Gramarye, verses that at first sight appear traditional but in truth are out of time:

He that sees blowing the wild wood tree,
And peewits circling their watery glass,
Dreams about Strangers that yet may be
Dark to our eyes, Alas!

There are hints that old Welsh myths are interwoven here, in lines translated by Robert Graves from his reconstruction of the sixth-century Cad Goddeu or ‘The Battle of the Trees’, a Welsh poem from The Book of Taliesin which he included in the mythic study The White Goddess:

I have plundered the fern | Through all secrets I spie;
Old Math ap Mathonwy | Knew no more than I.

And when Will encounters Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest, the secrets of the battle between Light and Dark will be laid bare. In The Dark is Rising the author emphasises that the time of the midwinter solstice and the Twelve Days of Christmas are a magical and significant time of year.

No doubt this is one of the reasons the Church chose this period to celebrate the advent of Christ, whose actual birthday we are never told and will have no real way of knowing: throughout the northern hemisphere there are old traditions which some of us moderns consider essentially ‘Christian’ in basis but which in fact have long been there to mark the change of season and the turning of the year, the days of darkness turning towards the light.

But of course you all knew that.


A review of The Dark is Rising will appear in due course but, in the meantime, may I wish everybody the very best of Christmases, however you celebrate it!

53 thoughts on “Promises of special things

  1. Being the greatest master in communication of the time, the Church decided that Jesus Christ should be born today, as the 25th of December was the day when the most popular Roman/Persian god was celebrated:Mithras. So clever of them😏.

    Merry Christmas, Chris, to you and your family.

    Ciao
    Stefy

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, Stefy, the bull-slayer with the Phrygian cap, the day of the Unconquered Sun and all that. It’s what Pope Gregory said to Augustine, the apostle of the Anglo-Saxons: substitute their feasts, their temples, their holy ones for Christian ones and soon nobody will be able to tell the difference!

      Buon Natale to you and yours too, Stefy, Nadolig Llawen, Fröhliche Weihnachten and, of course, Happy Holidays! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. earthbalm

    A great book by (in my opinion) an under rated author. I tend to avoid the film version. Looking forward to the next post! Thanks for the Christmas gift.

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    1. I’ve avoided it too, Dale, the most it gets is two stars out of five, and I believe Will is somehow turned into an American citizen for no clear reason that I can see (apart from the commercial imperative). Though I may have that wrong.

      Christmas gift?! Have I been a secret Santa and not realised it?! Anyway, best wishes for Christmas and the coming days, and hopefully 2019 won’t be as bad as we all fear…

      Liked by 1 person

          1. I know! When it’s such an English story! I wish the BBC would commission a decent version, as is supposedly happening with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. Sadly, The Dark is Rising is probably too little known and written too long ago for TV companies to bother investing in.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I really hope the BBC’s HDM is going to be better than the film The Golden Compass was, even if the latter wasn’t too shabby. I’ve just started a reread and had forgotten how well written Northern Lights is. The longer it takes for HDM to reach the screen the more anxious I get, but the production has been kept very firmly under wraps so there’s little available online.

              With TDIR do you think they should start with Over Sea, Under Stone and should they set them in the time they were written (the 60s and 70s)? Rereading HDM I sense it must be set in a rather bleak alternate world 60s, when Flower Power and Carnaby Street weren’t even a dot on the horizon!

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Just read HDM wrapped this month, so fingers crossed for a 2019 release. It has a good cast by the looks of things, very excited to see it.

              Personally, I’d set TDIR in the period they were written just because you need kids who are allowed the freedom to be alone, to wander the countryside without adult supervision. How many kids get that these days? But perhaps I just don’t have the imagination required. And yes, they probably should start at the proper beginning of the series, though I still think TDIR is the strongest book. Feel a reread coming on 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            3. Oh, thanks for that. I believe filming has been taking place in a Cardiff studio but they’ve been very circumspect about releasing details, so if they’re into post-production now no doubt there’ll be a slow dripfeed of info until it’s broadcast. As it’s been so long I’m guessing they’ve filmed the three book instalments back to back or they’ll get into the continuity problems that the Narnia films must surely have come up against.

              I second all you say about TDIR and setting. ‘Updating’ is nearly always a mistake, and pretty soon itself looks dated, whereas giving films a period feel I think remains true to the spirit of the originals they’re based on.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Very true. Strange how no one ever tried to update the Narnia books yet the producers of the TDIR film felt they had to update the story to the present day, perhaps because it’s well less known. I recently read that TDIR was once optioned by Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son, because it was one of his favourite books, though the rights were then bought by the company that finally made it. Makes you wonder if he would have done a better job

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            5. The TDIR film seems to have been ill-conceived from the start. That Henson’s son was interested in making the film is unsurprising, given his father’s involvement in fantasy films (like The Dark Crystal, for which a sequel is currently in production, I gather).

              Liked by 1 person

            6. Ill-conceived is right. I’ve seen nothing but bad reviews for this movie and having read the subplots that were forced on it, I’m not surprised. Why bother if you’re going to mess with it that much?

              Liked by 1 person

    2. Here, here! One of the best books for kids ever. I fell in love with this as a teenager, in love with Susan Cooper’s writing, a superior children’s author in my view. A part of me has wanted to write like her ever since

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I’ve just recently completed it, and the ending seems familiar so I really must’ve read it in the 1970s! My impression was that it was all deadpan serious but this 2018 reading reveals some subtle humour that I must have missed before. The review is going to be hard, not least because I now don’t want to risk stepping on people’s toes!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Haha! Just be honest, Chris – what else can you do? I read it when I was young and adored it as perhaps only an adolescent can adore a book. But we all connect with different things, don’t we? It’s why I’m cautious about recommending books because something I love will draw a shrug from someone else and vice versa. Just tell it how you see it. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, I knew that, 😉. As a christian, it is strange for many when I tell them that our spiritual life doesn’t change during Christmas (we don’t attend any special services, nor attach any of the religious traditions that branches or denominations have added through the years), but we do celebrate the cultural mix match we have arrived at, alongside some family traditions. And I personally also enjoy some of the religious elements as culture too, -since it’s undeniable that ours is a “christian” country. (America is a Norman Rockwell type of Christmas country, hahaha).

    I remember reading something similar to this in The Von Trapp Family, the way Maria Von Trapp celebrated Christmas with her family, the harvest festival and pagan feast and the visit to the church for a service resembling that light and dark, good and evil eternal battle.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Loved the way you emphasised family in your response, Silvia, I suppose the example of the Holy Family is the best model to follow.

      As for my attitude to this seasonal feast, I have to say that I appreciate the symbolism, I approve the underlying sentiments, but I try never to muddle my understanding of these with the literal and frankly credulous interpretations I’ve seen paraded over the years.

      On the other hand, I heartily endorse the tradition that Christmas is about charity, compassion and goodwill over the parallel traditions of overindulgence, conspicuous consumption and greed that currently dominate our culture. Thank goodness the best aspects never really go away!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. 12 days? Bah! Decorating for Christmas took 3 weeks in my house, and then the decorations often stayed up until Ash Wednesday because no one had time to take them down. 🙂 Aaaaanyway, lovely post, as always. Once again, a most blessed Christmas to you and yours! xxxxxxx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Why do we put ourselves to so much trouble and grief, just because it’s expected? After all the time spent in putting them up how much appreciation and satisfaction follows? I bet it can be measured in minutes…

      That’s another burst of tradition ‘Bah-humbuggery!’ out of the way with for another year, Jean. 🙂 Hope you enjoy the rest of the Christmas break and that you all continue to admire the decorations for as long as is necessary!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hee hee! Oh, I have a feeling New Year’s will be take-down day, since the kids are everywhere and our tree is now an evergreen zombie. 🙂 Writing time will be hard to come by this week, but that’s the way of it–far better to embrace the motherhood for now and then dive in head-first to the story-world once kids return to school. May your prose-exploration be fruitful in whatever story you tread!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Here in the UK it’s supposed to be unlucky to leave them up after Epiphany, so New Year’s Day sounds a safe bet — and you may still have help for packing things away before school re-opens?!

          And thanks for the bookish wishes, much appreciated!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Chris, what a powerful reply. I appreciate all you express, and try to do the same. I wish we could chat about this over a coffee or a tea, with others too. Lots of thoughts cross my mind. Maybe I should write about Christmas, -not moralistically, hahaha, but relating my experience and how it has evolved over the years.

    I despise that overindulgence you mention, and the conspicuous consumption and greed. (As an aside, I am reading a book called On Reading Well, and finished the chapter on Gatsby after having read Gatsby recently for a second time, and the author described Gatsby’s days as examples of greed and conspicuous consumption. However, I have to admit that I need to check myself to not fall into those pervading traps.

    Chris, what do you mean by the literal and credulous interpretations?

    At one time, we tried not to “celebrate” Christmas at all, my husband and I, moved by the misguided mix of christian like elements with other things. But then we realized that not showing any recognition of the season at all, put us closer to non believers and not only, closer to non American, and non Western Civilization people. That’s why nowadays, while not doing anything different at church than our usual worship, we do participate of things of our own accord, from inviting neighbors, to singing carols with friends and our children to widows as we did last Saturday.

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    1. I’m sure you will have much to say about Christmas traditions in the Iberian peninsula, Silvia, at least those ones which haven’t been adulterated by a domineering Anglo-Saxon overlay in recent years!

      Literal and credulous interpretations? I suppose things like the supposed names of the Three Kings when (a) they were never described as ‘king’ but as Wise Men or Magi, a term commonly used to describe those from a priestly Persian caste, (b) it’s not certain there were just three of them, as the New Testament accounts never specify the number, just the three types of gifts, (c) the belief that, as the Epiphany is celebrated 12 days later, Jesus was still a babe in swaddling clothes (more likely he was anything up to the age of two years old, as the incident when Herod massacres the innocents suggests. People are so used to seeing the developed clichés that many get upset when their accepted memes are questioned or disproved.

      I don’t want to get further into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Christmas story (let alone general belief in Christianity) but I do think that, if there is a message to be absorbed at this time of year then it should be about peace and goodwill, family and friends, and compassion and reconciliation, as we humans try to agree on common ground rather on what divides us.

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      1. Oh, I see. Thanks Chris for explaining. Yes, I can see why some would get upset. That’s why I think about writing and I change my mind, lol. I am going to stay with your last paragraph sentiment.

        As for the traditions in Spain, I have lived 22 years in Houston, Texas, and visited Spain in Christmas 7 times since I moved here, ever three years, and I have seen a decline though, in celebrations in general.

        Have a great New Year, and really thank you so much for the chat.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I remember you saying this was a midwinter tradition with you, the rereading of TDIR! And now a confession: I still haven’t read The Children of Green Knowe. Maybe next Christmas? Probably sooner!

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      1. Oh, NO! You should read it right away. It really is a midwinter story, so don’t wait too long. The Green Knowe books are odd and wonderful. Plus you can go visit the place they’re written about, it’s in Cambridgeshire, a small Norman manor. Do it!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. piotrek

    And here I got this email from a militantly catholic uncle stating it’s all taken straight from the Bible 😉
    I find it comforting, that there is some continuity that transcends faiths and cultures…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Such a tempting review that I’ve just had to add Susan Cooper to the list of books I might buy with the various vouchers I’ve acquired this year. I can’t think how I managed to miss reading this when I was a YA, but I suppose we can’t expect to read everything – so, many thanks for picking out such a tempting selection of quotes and tying them together so enticingly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, rather than a review this was meant to be a taster, Cath! I hope to review the novel properly before the end of the year but I fear I’m leaving it a bit late… I do have the odd reservation about the fantasy, but it’s definitely somewhat atmospheric to read it this time of year, snow or no snow, especially as I completed it between Midwinter’s Eve and Christmas Eve!

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        1. According to my schedule, the review should appear at 6.00 am GMT, December 31st. Is that too late for you? If so, don’t hesitate to try it, better judgements than mine rate it highly (eg, Jake’s overview at Tygertale.com: https://wp.me/p2wf1i-3qY) and I only have a mild reservation, not really a criticism!

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            1. I have been doing catch-up on reviews, interspersed with general posts on bookish themes, and try to be a couple of posts in advance in case events contrive to distract me. I’m not usually organised in any other way in real life! 🙂

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  8. Thank you, Chris for this snippet.

    I so wanted to live in the Stanton household when I was a kid, that mix of rural living and real trees and a bustling, loving, bickering family felt like an ideal Christmas to me.

    I think I’ve told you before, I so wanted to be Will when I was an adolescent, didn’t care it would mean changing gender! I wanted to have that life, be one of the Light, wear that belt!

    One of the scenes from the book that stuck with me was the passage with Will in the snow, meeting the Rider for the first time, the Walker, the smithy … I won’t go on as I know you’re set to review the book, but that book holds a special place in my heart. My favourite book as a kid – above the moralising tomes of CS Lewis, above even the great Alan Garner, whose work I also loved – and possibly one of most influential on my own taste and writing.

    Looking forward to your review and hoping you had a great Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved the folkloric elements when I first read this—I was into archaeology and legends, Morris dancing and local traditions, old straight tracks and folk music at the time—and thought Cooper’s use of aspects of these faithful to their spirit … which is why I’m appalled at the travesty of the movie version.

      Yes, I can see how this series might have influenced your writing style and thematic tastes, there’s a sense of menace lurking just around the corner which it’s really hard to shake off!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I loved the folklore too. Herne the Hunter, what a character – at once mysterious, working for the Light but simultaneously dangerous and a threat to anyone, just as folklore figures should be. Nothing safe and cosy about him.
        I think you’ve captured what I love about her writing – the darkness, the magic, the threat. The atmospheres she evokes are wonderful.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. They’re very British books, you’re right, and it’s one thing I love about them. They tap into our folklore and history and don’t try to appeal to an international audience. And why should they

            Liked by 1 person

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