A Collection for Christmas

The parson visited an old friend in the town, a green-fingered man, and from his house and sheltered old garden had been given a few treasures for the altar of his church on Christmas Day: sprigs of scented geranium, Christmas roses and a few violets. As he walked home through the dusk, up Pack and Prime lane, he was holding these treasures carefully, rejoicing in them. The hair-cut had cost him coins he could ill afford, but it had been worth it to have the Christmas roses and the violets. Also he had wished to be particularly trim and tidy this Christmas. He wished to honour God in every way possible.

He wanted the church to look gay and beautiful as it had never looked before, the services to be memorable with prayers and hymns that were wholehearted in God’s praise. He wanted his people to remember this Christmas for he thought the time was coming when they might no longer be able to worship God in the way he had taught them, and which was natural to them, the way of beauty and gaiety of heart that was akin to the world about them, where birds sang and flowers and stars bloomed and shone, the way that he believed was God’s way, who had made all things bright and fair.

For Parson Hawthyn was not very optimistic about the future. He believed the King would fight great battles yet, would be victorious for a while, but he feared that the darkness that confronted him was like that of a mounting storm that will not pass until it has broken. Then it would pass, as all things pass, but that time might be a long way ahead, and Parson Hawthyn did not suppose he would live to see it.

But the times ahead were none of his business. His business was this Christmas that had been so miraculously given to him. By next Christmas, Robert, the patron of his living, might have driven him out of his church, but this Christmas, by God’s mercy, Robert was not here. For that, as he trudged along Pack and Prime lane, leaning on his stick, he gave thanks, speaking aloud as was his custom, and singing a little in his cracked voice.

From ‘The White Witch’ by Elizabeth Goudge

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‘Cuisine des Anges’ by Eugene Grasset

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It was late afternoon before they finished the Christmas tree, and it was growing dark. They lit the old red Chinese lantern and many candles so that they could see to work. There were no glaring electric bulbs on this tree. Mrs Oldknow had boxes of coloured glass ornaments, each wrapped separately in tissue paper and put carefully away from year to year. Some were very old and precious indeed. There were glass balls, stars, fir-cones, acorns and bells in all colours and all sizes. There were also silver medallions of angels. Of course the most beautiful star was fixed at the very top, with gold and silver suns and stars beneath and around it. Each glass treasure, as light as an eggshell and as brittle, was hung on a loop of black cotton that had to be coaxed over the prickly fingers of the tree. Tolly took them carefully out of their tissue paper and Mrs Oldknow hung them up. The tiny glass bell-clappers tinkled when a branch was touched. When it was all finished, there were no lights on the tree itself , but the candles in the room were reflected in each glass bauble on it, and seemed in those soft deep colours to be shining from an immense distance away, as if the tree were a cloudy night sky full of stars. They sat down together to look at their work. Tolly thought it so beautiful he could say nothing , he could hardly believe his eyes.

From ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ by Lucy M Boston

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‘Christmas ‘ by Thea Procter

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I have never seen Paris so charming as on this last Christmas Day. The weather put in a claim to a share in the fun, the sky was radiant and the air as soft and pure as a southern spring. It was a day to spend in the streets and all the world did so. I passed it strolling half over the city and wherever I turned I found the entertainment that a pedestrian relishes. What people love Paris for became almost absurdly obvious charm, beguilement, diversion were stamped upon everything. I confess that, privately, I kept thinking of Prince Bismarck and wishing he might take a turn upon the boulevards. Not that they would have flustered him much, I suppose, for, after all, the boulevards are not human, but the whole spectacle seemed a supreme reminder of the fact so constantly present at this time to the reflective mind–the amazing elasticity of France. Beaten and humiliated on a scale without precedent, despoiled, dishonored, bled to death financially — all this but yesterday — Paris is today in outward aspect as radiant, as prosperous, as instinct with her own peculiar genius as if her sky had never known a cloud. The friendly stranger cannot refuse an admiring glance to this mystery of wealth and thrift and energy and good spirits.

I don’t know how Berlin looked on Christmas Day, though Christmas-keeping is a German specialty, but I greatly doubt whether its aspect would have appealed so irresistibly to the sympathies of the impartial observer. With the approach of Christmas here the whole line of the boulevards is bordered on each side with a row of little booths for the sale — for the sale of everything conceivable. The width of the classic asphalt is so ample that they form no serious obstruction, and the scene, in the evening especially, presents a picturesque combination of the rustic fair and the highest Parisian civilization. You may buy anything in the line of trifles in the world, from a cotton nightcap to an orange neatly pricked in blue letters with the name of the young lady — Adele or Ernestine — to whom you may gallantly desire to present it. On the other side of the crowded channel the regular shops present their glittering portals, decorated for the occasion with the latest refinements of the trade. The confectioners in particular are amazing, the rows of marvelous bonbonnieres look like precious sixteenth-century caskets and reliquaries, chiseled by Florentine artists, in the glass cases of great museums. The bonbonniere, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization.

From ‘Paris, Christmas, 1876’ by Henry James

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Gustave Doré – La nuit de Noël (detail)

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‘The house was warm and quiet, tidy and decorated, as if waiting for the spirit of Christmas to descend and fill it. There was a tree glittering and sparkling at the dining-room-window where everyone passing in the street could see it, and a thick circle of glossy holly leaves and scarlet berries hung on the front door. Christmas cards, frosted, gleaming with fantastic angels or entwined with wreaths made from silvered shells and musical instruments were arranged on the chest in the hall. Dozens of unopened parcels were piled in the drawing-room. Myron’s radio in the kitchen was softly giving, “Stilly Night, Holy Night,” by the Dixie Chocolate Cookie Choir; the lovely tune crept wistfully up the well of the staircase, making her pause with her hand on the bannister to listen. From where she stood she could see the nursery with the crib, draped in white, glimmering through the dusk. One star, a huge star that seemed full of meaning and message, shone steadily through the window panes.’

From ‘My American’ by Stella Gibbons

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Christmas at Bethanie was homely, the only word Lise could find for it – homelike, and simple, as suited the infant Christ. The house was decorated with holly and mistletoe, a crib made in the cloister.

Christmas Eve was a day of prayer with a vigil in the afternoon and, at Vespers, the martyrology was sung. ‘Even in the joy of the Nativity, we mustn’t forget the faith and endurance of the church,’ but just before midnight the Prioress took the statue of the holy child in her arms and went to the end of the cloister where she held him out as the nuns and all the household came in procession with lighted candles to kiss him and take hm to be laid in the manger in the crib, then Mass began, the long beautiful solemnity of the Christmas Mass. ‘Its words will stay in your heart,’ Soeur Theodore said rightly.

Afterwards, at the convent, at the strange house of one o’clock in the morning, came Reveillon, the Christmas wakening feast with hot chocolate, cake, crystallised fruit, strawberry jam eaten with a small spoon from saucers – Lise never ceased to wonder at the Sisters’ appetite for sweet things – and when they went to their rooms, on every pillowwas a small package from the Prioress. ‘Like children!’ Lise could imagine and outsider’s patronising tone. But how refreshing it is, she thought, to becaome a child again, with a child’s sense of wonder and joy.

On Christmas Day, Lauds was not until eight o’clock so that, for everyone, there was the luxury of an extra hour in bed. There was sung Mass to which many of the villagers came, most of them with gifts, provender, a carefully potted flower or cut chrysanthemums for the chapel. ‘And then there was a true Christmas dinner, said Lise. ‘Turkey, hot chestnuts, Buche de Noel – a cake shaped like a log and iced with chocolate – and wine. No wonder we needed a siesta after it,’ and they slept until they met in Chapel to sing the Vespers for Christmas Day.

From ‘Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy’ by Rumer Godden

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‘The Village Church on Christmas Day’ by Steffi Kraus

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The day had seemed perfect to Lucinda in every detail. She and Oscar had set a table in the garden before they left for church. The jacaranda had lost its flowers and was now a feathery umbrella of cool green. A soft nor’easter came off the harbour. They placed their presents on the parlour hearth and walked through the embarrassing plenty of Whitfield’s Farm (all of New South Wales was in the grip of drought, and all the feed between Sydney and Bathhurst was eaten down to the roots), through all the golden grass to church. Oscar said the colours felt wrong for Christmas. Lucinda said the colours in Bethlehem must surely have been like this: this dazzling blue sky, this straw-gold earth, and not the cold and bracken-brown of pagan Britain.

From ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ by Peter Carey

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‘Christmas Morning, 1944’ by Andrew Wyeth

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Some years, the holidays seem to bustle right past, and you’re hurled into the new year — flung onward by the gravity of time — before you know it. There are also years, and this is one, when darkness seems to pile up in drifts as the nights grow longer and the day goes down into its burrow earlier and earlier.

Even at its highest, the sun reclines low along the horizon — resting on its elbow, so to speak — and you can feel the coming of dusk as soon as the day slips past noon. This season, Christmas is the pivot of time, when the sun comes to its solstice and we come, too, to a place where our hearts can rest.

What should we feel today on this new morning?

That is the question Christmas always poses. But our feelings know no “should.” We feel what we feel, as one after another the Christmases go past. Over the years, it adds up to a medley of all our emotions, joy, gratitude, compassion, generosity, love, hospitality — and sometimes also loneliness, mistrust, miserliness and even despair.

This is the season for rejoicing at the hope of our own redemption, and yet rejoicing doesn’t always arrive on schedule, any more than hope or redemption do. The fact is that we make what we can of Christmas each year, and some years Christmas makes something entirely unexpected out of us.

Breakfast will come late this morning because we were up, most of us, late into the eve of this holiday, savoring how festive the darkness can be. And before breakfast is long over and the first toy has been broken, the first tears dried, dusk will be gathering outside again. That is the unfailing gift of this season — to comfort us with so much nightfall, to gather us together, and hold us close.

New York Times Editorial published December 24, 2009

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‘The Nativity’ by Edward Burne-Jones

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33 thoughts on “A Collection for Christmas

  1. Oh, what a wonderful Christmas post – love your selection of excerpts and paintings. Hope you have a good Christmas.


  2. A lovely collection of words and images! I had fun trying to guess where each selection came from, but managed only Soeur Lise’s.

    I hope you are having a peaceful and happy Christmas, Jane.


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