Christmastime, Still (Sometimes) in the Dark

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I woke up this morning early, the day following last night’s arrival of the Winter Solstice, of Midwinter, giving us the shortest and darkest day of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere). The only light in the house was from our tomten display–the nissen and gnomes who watch over our home, every Christmas season. Did someone forget to unplug the lights, as we are supposed to before everyone goes to sleep? Or did our watchful friends want to remind us of something? I wouldn’t doubt the latter at all. The whole house is silent, but that’s understandable; after all, as Astrid Lindgren taught us long ago, the tomten speak a “silent little language,” that presumably only our dog Stella could understand.

Exactly ten years ago, I wrote about the way some of our family’s holiday traditions revolve around the silence, and the dark. Well, children grow, and times change (as Lindgren wrote, “winters come, and winters go”). Some of our story-telling traditions have been retired, perhaps to return when our children return with their children. But midwinter still comes every year, and I remember (or am reminded, by our small, silent wintertime companions), of all that is happening out there in the darkness. So I am reposting it below. I’m the Sunday school president in our ward, but still, this is not a lesson that I would teach this Sabbath day, the final Sunday of Advent. More’s the pity, perhaps. Anyway, there will be family and friends at our home this evening all the same, as some traditions endure, even as they change. So this foggy, silent morning, I listen to the day’s most appropriate carol (whether you prefer the majestic version, or the humble one) and I am thankful for a God–and, perhaps, His little servants–who moves in the dark.

*****

Each Christmas season, usually right around this date, we have a story night: we get the kids together, and sometimes some friends, and turn out the lights and burn some candles and drink hot cocoa and share stories. Maybe we read them, and sometimes we tell them from memory. Old stories, new stories, fables, poems, scriptures, whatever. Given the ages of our girls, it often descends into silliness, but not always. Anything is allowed, really, just so long at involves something spoken, into a dimly lit room, to chase away the dark.

Christmas is a celebration of light, right? That’s part of the old idea, anyway, carried down by who knows how many traditions. Celebrating the birth of the Light of the World right around when the globe turns ever so slightly, and days start to grow longer again, is pretty well grounded historically, besides making perfect theological sense. (Even us Mormons, who sometimes like to make a big deal about rejecting much of traditional Christian practice, can’t deny that.) But of course, the light of the season takes place in the midst of darkness–it, in a way, depends upon the darkness, you might say. The star the wise men followed couldn’t be seen in the daytime. The shepherds were terrified and entranced by an angelic call and choir coming to them from out of night sky. And, of course, there is likely a deeper darkness lurking through the whole story: Joseph’s desperation in his search for a place for his pregnant wife to rest, Herod’s implacable determination to murder a prophecy before it can threaten his reign. Clearly, the doubts and dangers of the dark are there, right from the beginning of the story.

And they’ve never left the story, have they? Jesus lived and died and was resurrected, and left His followers behind, to spread His gospel and bless the world with His gifts. So Christians gave gifts to each other, some of whom–the St. Nicholases, among others–helping to in time to turn an essential Christian principle into something larger. As these gift-givers of all sorts spread throughout the world, they picked up stories to go along with them, and not all of the stories were filled with light. Some, by contrast, were dark. Krampus. Zwarte Piet. Père Fouettard. Belsnickel. And my favorite, Knecht Ruprecht, whose appearance and role in these stories (all having to do with those undeserving of gifts, or who use their gifts dismissively, being punished) obviously ties him to even deeper, older stories, stories of the wintertime and seeking protection and blessings in the midst of the darkness which the gift-giving of the Christmas season only fleshed out and gave greater meaning to: the tomte, hobs, kobolds and goblins throughout Western and Northern Europe, from which our modern interpretation of that power contained in Christmastime draws so much of its force.

We have a tomten in our home. He doesn’t come out very often, but come St. Andrew’s Day, we make sure he’s given a position of prominence. He sits up on a high ledge over our kitchen and living room, every Christmas season, watching (and maybe reporting) on us. I confess I’ve never seen him move–but then, I wouldn’t, would I? Just as I’ve never seen Santa Claus, but I know he’s out there, in some form or fashion, somewhere, I trust that there are tomte all around us. They’re likely much older than any of us, but beyond that I wouldn’t guess what they’re role in the eternal scheme of things may be. But these little guys–lurking about in the dark, unpredictable, maybe irascible, sometimes cute but occasionally frightening, perhaps somewhat damaged by all the time they’ve spent in the shadows and in the nooks and crannies of our homes and our collective consciousness–seem to be very part of the whole matter of gift-giving, in particular the gift-giving that makes it possible to get through cold winter nights.

Best to trust that they’ll do their business, whatever it may be, and leave them otherwise alone, I say. Literature and scriptures alike are full of stories of those who try, usually to their detriment, to get too close to whatever God is doing in the dark. That He is doing something is undeniable; whatever we want to make of the story of Job, we can’t pretend it’s anything other than God making use of Satan, the tempter and tester, the wicked (but wise?) Adversary who goes “to and fro” across the earth, watching us from dark corners and the recesses of our hearts. Cain got too close to the dark, and he ended up a wanderer too. As did Gollum as well, of course. And the Walker.

You don’t know about the Walker? Shame on you, for allowing Midwinter’s Day to arrive, and for not having picked up your old copy of Susan Cooper’s beautiful, evocative story, The Dark is Rising, which tells the tale of Will Stanton, an eleven-year-old boy, who finds himself caught up in a struggle for the soul of England (and perhaps the world), fighting the power of the Dark, and those it has misled and betrayed, the Walker–a man from the 13th century, who had been doomed to wander the earth until Will, the last of the Old Ones, was born–being only the most tragic example. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but it is perhaps perfect for today. And no scene better captures the drama contained in all stories of gifts in wintertime than Will’s confrontation, on Christmas Day, with the power of the Dark, as it attempts to destroy him during worship services in his local parish church. Fortunately, he is not alone–and he has gifts (treasured Signs, conveyed through the centuries to his hands) to help him withstand a power that had destroyed the minds of others:

Will, seeing some figures move towards the door out of the shadows, realised that the church was not empty after all. Down there by the little twelfth-century font, he saw Farmer Dawson, Old George, and Old George’s son John, the smith, with his silent wife. The Old Ones of the Circle were waiting for him, to support him against whatever lurked outside….

“All ready, Will?” said the rector genially, pulling on his overcoat…

“No,” Will said. “That is–no.” He was trying desperately to think of some way of getting the two of them outside the church before he came near the door himself. Before–before whatever might happen did happen. By the church door he could see the Old Ones move slowly into a tight group, supporting one another. He could feel the force now very strong, very close, all around, the air was think with it; outside the church was destruction and chaos, the heart of the Dark, and he could think of nothing that he could do to turn it aside. Then as the rector and Paul [Will’s older brother] turned to walk through the nave, he saw both of them pause in the same instant, and their heads go up like the heads of wild deer on the alert. It was too late now; the voice of the dark was so loud now that even humans could sense its power.

Paul staggered, as if someone had pushed him in the chest, and grabbed a pew for support. “What is that?” he said huskily. “Rector? What on earth is it?”

Mr. Beaumont had turned very white. There was a glistening of sweat on his forehead, though the church was very cold again now. “Nothing on earth, I think, perhaps,” he said. “God forgive me.” And he stumbled a few paces nearer the door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross. He stammered out, “Defend us they humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries…”

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, “No, Rector.”

The rector seemed not to hear him. His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow; he stood transfixed, he shook like a man with a fever, the sweat came running down his cheeks. He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: “…vestry…” he gasped out. “…book, on table…exorcise…”

“Poor brave fellow,” said John Smith in the Old Speech. “This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church.”

“Be easy, Reverend,” said his wife in English; her voice was soft and gentle, strongly of the country. The rector stared at her like a frightened animal, but by now all his powers of speech and movement had been taken away.

Frank Dawson said: “Come here, Will”….

Each of the Old Ones touched him gently as he came into the group, as if joining him to them, and Farmer Dawson took him by the shoulder. He said, “We must do something to protect those two, Will, or their minds will bend. They cannot stand the pressure, the Dark will send them mad. You have the power, and the rest of us do not.”

The resulting confrontation is the most dramatic of many such confrontations in the book; it is the first time the Signs of Power had been properly used in centuries: the first time in many generations which the Light, used by one who fully understood its power, could be used directly against the Dark. And what is to be make of these Signs: crossed circles made of bronze, stone, iron and wood, which Will has found and threaded through his belt?

When the light went out of the Signs, Paul and rector stirred. They opened their eyes, started to find themselves sitting in a pew when a moment ago–it seemed to them–they had been standing. Paul jumped up instinctively, his head turning, questing. “It’s gone!” he said. He looked at Will, and peculiar expression of puzzlement and wonder and awe came over his face. His eyes travelled down to the belt in Will’s hands. “What happened?” he said.

The rector stood up, his smooth plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. “Certainly it has gone,” he said, looking slowly round the church. “Whatever–influence it was. The Lord be praised.” He too looked at the Signs on Will’s belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smith of relief and delight. “That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross, nonetheless.”

“Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.”

The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply.

Rightly said. I think Christmas Day, like any day–including Midwinter’s–is a gift to us, a gift that began with a power far beyond ours, a gift that, for all I or anyone knows, involves beings and histories and events taking place well outside of my eyesight, in dark places that He’ll light for me, but only when and if needed. I need to be reminded of that. I need to respect that God, and the gift of the Son, born, very possibly, sometime in the midst of the cold and dark, may have had it work that way for a reason. A reason, to be sure, that I don’t fully understand…but I can tell stories about it nonetheless.

And so tonight we’ll tell stories by candlelight: funny stories, scary stories, Christmas stories. It’s the right time of year to do it. Some of the stories we’ll tell we’ve heard before, of course, but that’s all right. Even the best and oldest and most well-worn stories–stories about frightened shepherds, and mysterious strangers, and a young couple in trouble and all alone–sound like new, when you tell them in the dark.

Comments

  1. I started re-reading Susan Cooper about a week ago–I haven’t read her stories since elementary school. A lot of books I liked as a child haven’t impressed me as an adult, but The Dark is Rising Sequence (series) is wonderful so far.

  2. Dark Traveler says:

    Thank you for this insight. You have added a new dimension to my understanding of the winter season.

  3. My wife just finished re-reading the whole series, and she loves it as much as ever. She does say that now, after several re-readings, The Dark is Rising (the volume) is rather tropey, and thinks Greenwitch and The Grey Kind (which one the Newberry award) are the better books.

  4. Oh wow! Russell, you move me in deep places. Too deep for words. Thank you.