Monday, December 21, 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

I love the Christmas season: light and laughter push back the dark and cold outside, and the music … ah, the music … fills hearts with warmth and minds with a sense of wonder.

Years ago, my mother put it this way in a letter to one of my brothers, who spent Christmas that year far from home:

“As the years have gone by, Christmas has taken on new and deeper meanings. At this stage, the significance of the Savior’s birth and atonement grows For me, the most enduring part of Christmas as we celebrate it is in the sacred carols. They carry the joy and awe of his birth. I also cherish the sweet feelings I have toward all the family as I try to think of things that would delight each one--and the pain that accompanies knowing I can’t give every delight. Mixed into that is the memory of Christmases past--mostly the feeling of gathering near the tree with loved ones, playing games, enjoying gifts, listening to sweet music, enjoying life together.”

I remember well those Christmas Eves spent around the Christmas tree. We always had a pinion pine: lumpy looking trees that smelled wonderful, we ate good food, and we sang carols for hours on end.

Like my mother, it seems that the older I get, the more I appreciate the Christmas carols. I’ve come to love one in particular that that we didn’t sing growing up: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem written in the late 1800s by the English poet Christina Rossetti and first put to music in 1906. (Sarah McLachlan does a particularly good version of it, which you can listen to here:

The beautiful lyrics dwell on the contrasts that make the season so mysterious and magical:

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But his mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

(Photo courtesy of Sam Knox on Flickr; available at: