In the Bleak Midwinter; or How Christmas Helps Us Love Bad Weather (Poems for Christmas #1)

140219132955-10-snow-days-horizontal-large-galleryI’m going to spend this week blogging about my favorite Christmas poems. I mean, I plan to do other things too, like all of my Christmas shopping and my ritualistic Messiah-sing-a-long-for-introverts, which occurs late at night and with no witnesses. I also plan to eat a lot of cookies. In between bites, though, I will blog about poems that, I think, get to some of the essential things about the Christmas season.

We start with a moderately famous Christmas poem that is also a moderately famous Christmas carol: Christiana Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter, first published in 1872.” Most people have probably heard the song, which has been recorded by everyone from the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge to Erasure. Even without hearing the song or reading the poem, though, most people know instinctively upon hearing the tile that it is about things like bleakness and winter. It is also a lovely poem about the birth of Christ, as the first two stanzas make clear:

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 Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Several things should be apparent from these opening verses. They tell us that this is going to a poem about Christ’s birth, for one thing, and that it is going to occur on a bleak midwinter day with piles and piles of snow on the ground. The entire poem is built on the contrast of the bleakness of a snowy winter and the joy of Christ’s birth. Which means, of course, that it is historical nonsense. Snow is not completely unheard of in Bethlehem, but it is not the norm. And bleak midwinters with “snow on snow, snow on snow” are just not a thing in the Holy Land.

But they are a thing in England, where Rossetti lived. Rossetti is not using this poem to talk about the historical facts of Christ’s birth, or even about the way that we experience Christ generally. She is talking about the way that the people in the Northern Hemisphere–England, but also many parts of Europe and North America–experience Christmas. It’s cold, and that sucks. Depending on where you live, it might be snowing, which means a lot of inconvenient traffic accidents, falls, and general misery. In other places, it is just cold all the time and doesn’t even have the decency to snow.

So great is the power of Christmas, however, that it makes us actually like this miserable weather by associating it with friendship, family, food, free stuff, time off, and goodwill to our fellow human beings. Though the birth of Christ occurred in a much more temperate land, the entire iconography of Christmas in the West has been built around snow and freezing temperatures—both of which are continually presented as if they were good things.

In the service of universal love, we have turned a Turkish heretic-puncher into a universal grandfather who lives in the coldest place in the world and flies around the world in a sleigh. People in places that have never seen a snowflake decorate their homes with snowperson and polar landscapes. And we freaking sing songs about a “Winter Wonderland,” a “Marshmallow World,” and “Let it Snow!” Nothing short of the central religious and cultural holiday of our time could make rational people praise and actively seek bad weather.

“In the Bleak Mindwinter,” though, is honest about the tradeoff. It doesn’t celebrate the snow. It starts by emphasizing the bleak, sterile, inhospitable environment in which the Christmas season occurs. And then, Rossetti goes on to focus on the wonder of Christ’s birth and the joy it brings into the world—joy that is possible in the midst of a bleak midwinter because it requires nothing that cannot be found in a stark world:

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall 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.

We can read these lines (as many people do) into a fairly standard rant against the commercialization of Christmas: the Baby Jesus did not need fancy presents, just his mother’s milk and some hay to sleep on, and why can’t we be more like Jesus and stop thinking that Christmas is about stuff and just give him our broken hearts & etc. But this is not how I read it. Or how I see Christmas.

In order to overcome the negative inertia of rotten weather, Christmas has to be a big production. And in our culture, big productions have to be splashy, gaudy, hypercommercialized, and mawkishly sentimental acts of public piety. Private acts of devotion are great, and even necessary–but they aren’t going to turn bleak midwinters into reasons for people from all different cultures and faith traditions to ignore the ten-car pileup on the expressway and feel good about the world. Christmas needs to be more than private devotion or it won’t work.

But it does work. That Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year is a quantifiable fact, and it holds true for religious and non-religious people alike.” The month of December accounts for 30% of all charitable giving in the United States. We think more of other people, spend more time with our families, and express good wishes more during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year. And Christmas has been established, in rigorous peer-reviewed studies, to be the happiest day of the year.

And all of this is true even though, in so many places in the Global North, the entire Christmas season takes place during the most bleak, sterile, cold, and miserable time of the year. This, I believe, is that great paradox that Christiana Rossetti captures so beautifully.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this. This has been one of my favorite Christmas poems/songs for years now. It never occurred to me to read it with an anti-commercialization message, but I can see where that can come across. For myself I’ve generally read it as contrasting the Glory of God with the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth and connecting that with our own relationship with Him. He does not demand grandeur from us, but humility. That reminder gives me both hope and peace.

  2. I love this setting of the carol by Harold Darke (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYAv8xvBK74).

  3. This is one of my favorite Christmas carols, though I prefer the version written by Darke. Thank you for bringing it to my remembrance.