It’s an irony that the things I like best about Christmas are traditions from places where Winter means snow and ice. The smell of pine warmed by glowing lights, carols full of cold Decembers, and hot Wassail in the punch bowl. None of these are indigenous to my birth-state Arizona, or to Southern California.
Of course, these joyous Holiday things are deeply rooted in Paganism – Christmas has merely borrowed its older siblings’ finery. The Winter Solstice has been called by many names, but its ancient rites and customs are far more ingrained in the season than the America of Currier and Ives recognizes. Rites and customs that were already here among the first peoples on the land, but also came hidden even in the bosom of Puritanism from across the sea.
Without these hidden treasures from the past, there would be little worth eating or drinking at the Christmas feast, houses would be starkly bare of decoration, and even many a cherished carol would fall silent if its ancient tune were returned to the pagan bard who first played it.
An icy drear December indeed.
In this poem by Mary Oliver, there is a hint of paganism in her imagined wind-bird, which brings us a kinder, gentler winter snow:
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us
he wants to go to sleep,
but he’s restless—
he has an idea,
and slowly it unfolds
from under his beating wings
as long as he stays awake.
But his big, round music, after all,
is too breathy to last.
So, it’s over.
In the pine-crown
he makes his nest,
he’s done all he can.
I don’t know the name of this bird,
I only imagine his glittering beak
tucked in a white wing
while the clouds—
which he has summoned
from the north—
which he has taught
to be mild, and silent—
thicken, and begin to fall
into the world below
like stars, or the feathers
of some unimaginable bird
that loves us,
that is asleep now, and silent—
that has turned itself
The bird in this Thomas Hardy poem, however, hints at Glad Tidings in the midst of a harsh cruel winter:
THE DARKLING THRUSH
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
the bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
I wrote this poem because my part of America is often mocked for its lack of connection to the “traditional” Christmas of colder climes:
ANOTHER KIND OF CHRISTMAS
A bright parched sky over cold cracked earth
Our north wind stole the last tear from air’s face
Abandoning a static-crackling still life in its wake
Lights cover house fronts and the dead lawns
Illumine green trees aglitter from some other world
Where snow rides their wind down to a sleeping earth
Dreaming of a spring which will have teased this sea-desert
Long before its welcome home among the tall green trees
Our spring of tiny blue butterflies disappearing from the dunes
Too many Christmas songs buried in snow’s white dazzle
Which never fell from some other world on Bethlehem
From a bright parched sky over cold cracked earth
Whatever traditions you follow, or if you follow none at all, this is the season to Light Up the Darkness, so I wish you much brightness, good cheer and good company. Thank you for reading this week’s Word Cloud.
Sources and Further Reading:
- White Eyes, from Why I Wake Up Early, © 2004 by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press)
Mary Oliver (1935- ) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1984) for American Primitive, and the National Book Award (1992) for New and Selected Poems.
- The Darkling Thrush, from The Complete Poems by Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1976)
Thomas Hardy, renowned English novelist and poet, was born in 1840 in the village of Higher Bockhampton in the county of Dorset. When Hardy died in 1928, his ashes were enshrined in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, but his heart was buried with his family.
- Another Kind of Christmas by Nona Blyth Cloud, December 2015
- Mistletoe —
The tradition of hanging it in the house in winter to bring good fortune and keep away evil spirits dates back to the Druids. It also plays an important part in the Norse myth of the death of Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg.
- Mary Oliver with one of her dogs
- Photograph of Thomas Hardy
- Shepherds outside Bethlehem – Handmade Software, Inc. Image Alchemy v1.11
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud