The spirit of Christmas

Signed and sent Christmas postcard

Within a rustic framework sits a family consisting of a couple, their children (two with their spouses) and grandchildren, with the adults toasting the viewer.

The youngsters are tucking into the food and drink with a will, but the family aren’t forgetting their charitable duties: in the adjacent side panels individuals who are hungry and destitute are being attended to by the servants and given food and warm clothing.

Continue reading “The spirit of Christmas”

Cherry on the top

Joos van Cleve, Madonna of the Cherries (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Two, four, six, eight,
Mary at the cottage gate
Eating cherries off a plate,
Two, four, six, eight.

As we hurtle towards the end of this most eventful, least forgettable year, and we approach the day when we are encouraged to trust that peace may come to people of good will, let us pause awhile and contemplate one version of the image that is associated with Christmas, the Madonna and Child.

With this final visit to the canvases of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for 2020 I present you with my thoughts on a Renaissance painting called The Madonna of the Cherries by Netherlands artist Joos van Cleve, who died around 1540 or 1541, leaving his wife a widow.

Existing in several versions, with the composition sometimes reversed, the Bristol example caught my eye for various reasons, some of which may resonate with you too.

Continue reading “Cherry on the top”

Christmas delights

Above The Dardy, Llangattock, Crickhowell

We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping…
— E Nesbit, New Treasure Seekers

Love it or loathe it, Christmas is coming. Even if modern Christmases are increasingly tawdry* (a perpetual cry, I’m sure) at least we have past literary Christmases to fall back on for a quantum of solace when modern commercialised Yuletides get too much to bear, when our childhood memories of more magical midwinters need reviving, when we want the traditional once-upon-a-time seasonal fare to give us reassurance and sustenance.

As you may have noticed, I recently reread and reviewed John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as preparation for a readalong of his more familiar The Box of Delights for the Twitter readalong #DelightfulXmas.

I then took to wondering how children’s fantasy literature through the years has presented and evolved the seasonal theme; a few thoughts are offered here (links are mostly to my reviews).

Continue reading “Christmas delights”

Bleak midwinter

Beware the Rider

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
Vintage Classics 2013 (1973)

If, in a fantasy set during the twelve days of Christmas, you’re expecting lords leaping, geese laying or partridges in pear trees then you’d be sorely disappointed: despite the fact that there are seasonal gifts for young Will Stanton this is no twee tale of sweethearts, nativities or jolly old St Nicholas. Instead we get an intense battle between the Light and the Dark, accompanied by elemental forces in nature and threatened by betrayal.

Following on from Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) this novel focuses on a new protagonist, Will, but is linked with the earlier novel by the appearance of Merriman Lyon and passing references to the chalice which had featured in the earlier Cornish adventure. Will is due to have his eleventh birthday on December 21st, midwinter’s day: it’s already a magical time, with the sun ‘standing still’ for the solstice, but Will also happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact which marks him out for an epic struggle and for which he at first appears inadequate.

But Will is no ordinary youngster: he discovers soon enough that he is one of the Old Ones.

Continue reading “Bleak midwinter”

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!

Gawain and the jolly green giant

Winter's journey
Winter’s journey (Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, some years back)

Bernard O’Donoghue transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Penguin 2006

Simon Armitage transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Faber and Faber 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most magical of Arthurian tales: a jolly green giant who intrudes into King Arthur’s Christmas court at Camelot invites Gawain to chop off his head on condition that Gawain allows the return blow one year hence; the year up, Gawain then travels through Wales to northwest England to face his doom. Has he bitten off more than he can chew or will he acquit himself well and bring honour to king and court? Continue reading “Gawain and the jolly green giant”

Christmastide in Camelot

Sir Gawain and King Arthur, with (below) the Green Knight [British Library] http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-online.html
Sir Gawain and King Arthur and (below) the Green Knight after Gawain had done the deed (British Library)
http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-online.html

This king [Arthur] lodged at Camylot over Krystmasse with many a fair lord, the best of men, those noble brothers in arms all worthily of the Round Table, fittingly with fine revelry and care-free pleasures. On very many occasions they tourneyed there; these noble knights jousted very gallantly, and afterwards rode to court to dance and sing carols. For the feast was the same there for the whole fifteen days, with all the meat and mirth that men could devise.

Such raucous fun and merriment to hear, noise by day and dancing by night, all was utmost joyousness in halls and chambers with lords and ladies as best delighted them. With all the joy in the world they abode there together, the most famed knights save Christ himself and the loveliest ladies that ever lived, and the comeliest king reigning, for all these fair folk in the hall were in the prime of their life.

The most fortunate under heaven, the king the greatest in temperament — it would now be hard to describe so sturdy a host on that hill.

• Literal translation of an extract from the 14C poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the unique manuscript of which is in the British Library.

Christmastide — which runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany (January 5th) — represents the original Twelve Days of Christmas; this traditionally marked the seasonal turnaround after the dark days of midwinter. To the medieval mind a legendary Arthurian court would naturally have celebrated it too.

Also known as Yuletide, this was a time when, in historic times, carollers would go round wassailing, wishing neighbours and drinking their health from a wassail bowl. However, unlike with this Arthurian Christmas, there wouldn’t usually be an offer from a Green Knight to chop his head off, so long as he could do the same to you a year and a day later …

In the words of the Gloucestershire Wassail I wish you, my fellow bloggers, the very best for this holiday season, with a promise to resurface sometime between Christmas and the New Year:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Cutting out the middleman

Christmas visitor
Caught in the act, and in broad daylight too …

It’s such a weird idea, isn’t it, the notion that we’d encourage our kids to feel OK about an old man whom they didn’t really know creeping like a cat burglar into our houses, all while they’re asleep in their beds on the night before Christmas. In an era when ‘stranger danger’ is still a buzz-phrase, when bygone celebrities are sent to jail for past misdemeanours with underage victims and when cyber-grooming is second only to terrorism in the public perception, what a muddled mixed message to pass on to future generations.

At the other extreme of the chronological spectrum — when you get to a certain age, and sometimes a lot earlier than that — you know that all this hype about getting your heart’s desires is just so much guff as you open presents containing stinky perfume, socks you wouldn’t be seen dead in or that cut-price book about Hitler (because somebody thought that a specialist interest in King Arthur meant any old history title would suit). If it’s better to give than to receive it’s no wonder my heart sinks as the end of the year approaches: all those happy faces smiling as they hand over gifts and my rictus grin as I pretend to contain my simulated excitement.

Admit it, you too have a bit of the Scrooge DNA lurking in your genes, don’t you? And if your knowledge of history extends back before the Second World War you’ll know that all this gift-exchange hysteria that we’ve been told is traditional is — relatively speaking — recent, serving only to increase the comfort and joy of a few senior executives of, and investors in, supersized commercial corporations. In the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the only gift-exchange of note was the chance to behead a stranger who gate-crashed King Arthur’s party, followed by a return beheading a year later. That’s the way to do it! as Mr Punch would say.

Here’s my suggestion for the future, a practice which increasingly seems to work for many families with grown-up children. We each buy what we ourselves want, and a ceremonial reimbursement and handover occurs at a pre-Christmas meet-up so that presents can be wrapped before the arrival of the Big Day. Then on the day itself we exchange presents, make suitable noises of delight as we open them (the choice of wrapping paper will be the biggest surprise, occasioning suitable exclamations of appreciation) and settle down to the ritual meal and postprandial walk. Honour is satisfied, goods properly valued, tradition upheld and, of course, big business will continue to reap their ill-gotten rewards.

Grinch Cynical? Moi? Probably. It’s the prerogative of age, though I probably sound just like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Myself, I’d be happy to simply give and/or receive book vouchers — everyone gives what they can and gets what they want, job done.

And for goodness sake, let’s cut out the middleman. You know, the one who supposedly slithers down the chimney in the dead of night. He’s over-rated, overweight and over here. Get over him.

*  *  *  *  *

Lest you think I’m a total curmudgeon, this is of course all totally tongue-in-cheek, a post in search of a cheap laugh, a diatribe laced with childhood disappointments: ’tis the season of goodwill, after all! So Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays / Season’s Greetings / Happy Solstice / Nadolig Llawen / Joyeux Noël [delete as appropriate] — my fervent wish is “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too …”

And did you spot all the unsubtle literary references?