I’m writing this on December 21st, the shortest day of the year – the joy of Christmas is very nearly upon us, and our C of E Primary School here in Bemerton has broken up for the holiday. By the time they go back, we shall all be noticing how quickly the days are getting longer.
Although I’m not a fan of the long winter nights, and I’m always glad when the year turns towards warmth and light, one of the benefits is to be up and about and see the sunrise and the sunset. This year they have been glorious in their reds and purple/pinks. I remind the school children in assembly that this is all free. A glorious show, every day, that they can’t earn. That God is up early painting the clouds, just for them! Your view of this depends on how controlling and interventionist you believe God to be, but if He does paint the wayside flower and the sunrise, He does it by setting up laws of nature, chemistry, physics and astronomy, which might actually sound grander than simply painting.
These are the kinds of discussions we’ve been having in the Thursday night Fellowship group at St John's Place, where after a nice meal we hear a talk and then discuss it together. The kind of activity of which George Herbert would have approved, I’m sure.
Herbert's poem 'Christmas' also celebrates the beauty of winter sun, and frost, as well as abundant shepherds. What strikes me first is not any spiritual allegory, but how different Christmas must have been in 1630.
Although clearly the nobility did celebrate the festival - Henry VIII spent a year’s tax income on celebrating his first Christmas as King, aged just 19 in 1509 - life must have been quite different for the majority of his people. Clearly all our modern shops, lights and pop music are gone, never existed - just like Bedford Falls changes in 'Its a Wonderful Life'. Look further back, at Prince Albert’s influence - no carols about children in heaven, no Christmas trees, no cards (phew - it's feeling better already).
So what was there in 1630? If you consider that Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration just a decade or so later it can’t have meant that much to folk. Imagine trying to ban it now? (Yes, that was a nice thought!) I don’t suppose that it was more religious in Herbert’s day either. Our knowledge of the Bible is far greater now than then, and we can see and explore Bethlehem through the TV and internet. We have our fake nativity scenes, and school plays, but imagine when there were real shepherds in the Lower Road fields just opposite St Andrew's Church! How different Christmas must have been in those days.
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