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.

The rising of the sun

sun wreath

The rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

Chorus from traditional carol The Holly and the Ivy, from a broadside of about 1710 and therefore at least a little older than that. The words to the verses confirm that carols aren’t just for midwinter but also for seasons such as Lent and Easter.

Continue reading “The rising of the sun”