I once inherited a marmot-fur coat. By one of those weird coincidences, my friend Di inherited a mink one at more or less the same time. Both coats were short and boxy; very 1920s-30s, so the poor little beasts had gone to meet their makers (ho ho) long before either of us was born. What to do with them, though? They were potentially saleable (especially Di’s mink) but that didn’t seem right. In the end, we discovered that Oxfam would take them to send to folk in very cold climates, so we decided to donate them, but we would first wear them once and once only. I can’t remember why we thought this was a good idea, but it was probably a nod to the elderly relatives who had bequeathed them to us. The one-and-only occasion we chose was Midnight Mass in Romsey Abbey, which would be perishing cold. So we went in our outdated finery, a touch of Mammon in the holy place, and shortly after the service began, a couple of noisy drunks staggered in. There was much tutting, some moves to evict them, but the priest said they were welcome, as everyone was in God’s house.
Cue to Kipling’s poem Eddi’s Sevice:
Eddi, priest of St Wilfrid
In the chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.
But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to the service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.
‘Wicked weather for walking,’
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
‘’But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend.’
The altar-lamps were lighted, -
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.
The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.
‘How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is my Father’s business,’
Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.
‘But – three are gathered together –
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren,’
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
And he told the Ox of a manger,
And a stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider
That rode to Jerusalem.
They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The Word.
Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.
And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhhod End,
‘I dare not shut his chapel
On such who care to attend.’
So, there you have some of the inevitable aspects of Christmas: holiness, sentimentality, and a reckless midwinter lash-up. And now it is upon us once again, with its extraordinary confusion of the Christian message and the Pagan middle-of-the-dark-and-maybe-the-sun-will-never-shine-again Whoop-de-do. I’m as confused as anyone else. I love singing carols, I put up a crib in the hall, have frequented Midnight Mass (and longed for all the bells to ring out at 12 but they don’t here). I re-wrote the story of Babushka because I didn’t think the ending was about the redemptive power of love - and it should be. Not bad for an at-best Agnostic.
We once went to Tromso, up in the Arctic Circle, in early January. The little town was covered in snow and every window had an arch of candles in it. It was dark almost all of the time, except for about four hours of enchanting twilight between about ten a.m. and four p.m. The moon was full and every night, the Aurora Borealis appeared in the sky. I hadn’t taken on board that they dance, change shape, move silently across the sky and are like transparent veils of green, gold and lilac. Numinous? Oh yes. There is, of course, a scientific explanation but it doesn’t detract from the wondrousness. Perhaps that’s where stories arise: somewhere between the everyday realities and the unearthly mysteries.
I haven’t even been at the sherry yet.