A Collection: With Love for Christmas

“It has always worried me before, and this is the first Christmas I have had as I wanted it. The Christmases I have known have been gross with fattening and killing. Christ should not be feasted like that, and this is Christ’s feast, his day. Why not feast him with beauty and moderation, an essence like a poem of festival? At Chinglam ours is turning into that.

There is no one here but the children and me. Rafael is immersed in preparations, she has been for days; not one of them is for herself and she is an intensely possessive, self-engrossed child.

We go up to gather moss and make a crib; it is very simple, made of half a basket to shape a cave standing in moss, and the floor of the cave is sprinkled with clean sawdust. Only the animals are in it now; it waits for the Holy Family to come into it tonight, which is Christmas Eve.”

From ‘Thus Far and No Further’ by Rumer Godden

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‘The Census at Bethlehem’ by Peter Breugel the Elder (1566)

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‘The sky was full of stars, sparkling and frostbright, except where the moon rode high above the crowding street of the Southwark shore; and the City seemed a city in a fairy-tale; every ledge and cranny deep in sparkling frosted snow, and every carved saint and angel and demon on the tower of every church ermine-hooded and ermine-cloaked. There were lights everywhere, marigold windows in the shadowy walls of houses, and golden lanterns hung before the doors, and every light reflected in the river so that it made two. In those days people still called Christmas Eve the Festival of Lights and set candles in every window and lanterns before their doors, to welcome the little King.

‘Everything feels as though it was sort of waiting – for something lovely to happen,’ whispered Tamsyn. Somehow the snow and the starshine and the lovely expecting feel of Christmas Eve made her not want to talk above a whisper.

‘It always feels like that on Christmas Eve,’ Piers whispered back, ‘Lights, and star and snow, and people in their houses, all holding their breath and waiting.’

From ‘The Armourer’s House’ by Rosemary Sutcliff

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‘A Merry Christmas’ from 'The Poinsettia’ series of Christmas postcards. Published by Raphael Tuck & Sons (circa 1911).

‘A Merry Christmas’ from ‘The Poinsettia’ series of Christmas postcards.
Published by Raphael Tuck & Sons (circa 1911).

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When I got out of the train in the dusk of a dove-coloured afternoon, my daughter ran along the platform to meet me, and with her an a young man in short leather breeches with bare knees, and with it being almost dark, and the costume familiar, I thought it was her husband. So that I greeted him with the proper enthusiasm, seizing his hands in both mine, and crying, ‘How charming of you to come out in all the cold!’

Fortunately my son-in law and I do not kiss, but except for that all was enthusiasm, including, of course, the familiar Du.

My daughter pulled my arm. ‘It’s the taxi man,’ she whispered, struggling to suppress her giggles.

The young man, I must say, let my behaviour was over him with dignity. Perhaps he thought it was the way of all foreigners arriving at stations, and that, far from being a cold race, the English were red hot.

A little subdued, I was drawn out of the station into a world of Christmas trees. In front of most of the houses stood a tree lit by electric light, and in the middle of the one wide street was a huge one, a pyramid of solemn radiance.

I felt as if I has walked into a Christmas card ….

From ‘Christmas in a Bavarian Village’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

(first published in ‘The Virago Book of Christmas)

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THEY WALK to the lake,
where Wordsworth skates like a boy,
in heaven on earth;

a tangerine sun
illuminating the hour
into manuscript;

so Dorothy’s gifts
are the gold outlines of hills,
are emblazoned trees;

Coleridge on a rock,
lighting his pipe, votive smoke
ascending the air …

Nowt to show more fair –
ecstatic, therefore, her stare,
seeing it all in.

From ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday’
words by Carol Ann Duffy and iIllustrations by Tom Duxbury

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‘A Christmas Carol’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1867)

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“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow. Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of color; it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees, till it fell from them with a shuddering sound; it clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches; the gates were all blocked up with the sloping drifts, and here and there a disregarded four-footed beast stood as if petrified “in unrecumbent sadness”; there was no gleam, no shadow, for the heavens, too, were one still, pale cloud; no sound or motion in anything but the dark river that flowed and moaned like an unresting sorrow. But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless — fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want. But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart.”

From ‘The Mill on the Floss’ by George Eliot

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‘The Christmas Tree’ by Elizabeth Adela Forbes

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“There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock -with all its layered boughs reaching up into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-coloured chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh ans maze if brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstacy.”

From ‘The Christmas Tree” by Isabel Bolton

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Mile after mile we went, fighting against the wind, falling into snowdrifts, and navigating by the lights of the houses. And yet we never saw our audience. We called at house after house; we sang in courtyards and porches, outside windows, or in the damp gloom of hallways; we heard voices from hidden rooms; we smelt rich clothes and strange hot food; we saw maids bearing in dishes or carrying away coffee cups; we received nuts, cakes, figs, preserved ginger, dates, cough-drops and money; but we never once saw our patrons.

Eventually we approached our last house high up on the hill, the place of Joseph the farmer. For him we had chosen a special carol, which was about the other Joseph, so that we always felt that singing it added a spicy cheek to the night.

We grouped ourselves round the farmhouse porch. The sky cleared and broad streams of stars ran down over the valley and away to Wales. On Slad’s white slopes, seen through the black sticks of its woods, some red lamps burned in the windows.

Everything was quiet: everywhere there was the faint crackling silence of the winter night. We started singing, and we were all moved by the words and the sudden trueness of our voices. Pure, very clear, and breathless we sang:

‘As Joseph was walking
He heard an angel sing;
‘This night shall be the birth-time
Of Christ the Heavenly King.
He neither shall be bored
In Housen nor in hall
Not in a place of paradise
But in an ox’s stall …..

And two thousand Christmases became real to us then; The houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited; The stars were bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies, in our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all.

From ‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee

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‘The Nativity’ by Arthur Hughes (c 1857-8)

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My blessed mother dozing in her chair
On Christmas Day seemed an embodied Love,
A comfortable love with soft brown hair
Softened and silvered to a tint of dove;
A better sort of Venus with an air
Angelical from thoughts that dwell above;
A wiser Pallas in whose body fair
Enshrined a blessed soul looks out thereof.
Winter brought holly then; now spring has brought
Paler and frailer snowdrops shivering;
And I have brought a simple humble thought –
I her devoted duteous Valentine –
A lifelong thought which thrills this song I sing,
A lifelong love to this dear saint of mine.

An untitled poem by Christina Rossetti (c 1882)

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‘A Year has Passed’ by an unknown designer (1911)

More than a century on, this is my Christmas wish to you ….

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39 thoughts on “A Collection: With Love for Christmas

  1. I do enjoy your collections posts, Jane. Lost of lovely things here. The passage by Elizabeth von Arnim caught my eye as I have a copy of her Enchanted April to look forward to. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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  2. Thank you for the lovely collection, Jane. Such beautiful images. I love the Christmas tree by Elizabeth Forbes. And I am thinking that I should look for a copy of The Armourer’s House.

    Wishing you a very Merry Christmas from Texas!

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    1. Elizabeth Forbes lived and worked just yards from where I am now and I’ve always loved her work. I remember taking it with me in postcard form, to pin on the walls, when I first went to university.

      I wish you a Merry Christmas from Cornwall!

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  3. A blessed Christmas to you and yours, Jane! Love the collection, especially the Von Arnim (the mistaken son-in-law bit really tickled me, hahaha), and the Tom Duxbury illustration is simply beautiful. Thanks for the treat! 🙂

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  4. What a wonderful, wonderful selection of passages. I must search them out. Thank you for highlighting them along with the beautiful Breughel.

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