LONG ago, walking home, I
was tempted to visit the poet Edward FitzGerald's grave on a
winter's afternoon, just when the light was "going", as we used to
say. A young airman from the USAAF base with a little son in his
arms was fumbling his way into the church. "Where is the light?" he
asked. Memorials glimmered all around. Light was taking its daily
Since it is Twelfth Night, I
take down the holly. Log fires have dulled its gloss. Crisped to a
turn, it hisses from the beams to the bricks. The white cat has
done for the Christmas cards. No sooner do I stand them up than she
mows them down, believing this to be her duty.
I shove crushed
wrapping-paper into a sack unceremoniously, empty ashes, and remove
wizened apples, when, without warning, an Epiphany sun blazes in,
making the ancient interior look trashy and in need of a good
putting-to-rights. But, as children, we took down the paper chains
and folded up the paper bells with sadness. We watched the snowman
drip into nothing, and witnessed his dying. Everything was
different then, as it was bound to be.
The farmhouse was in "full
Christmas" when William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night to
entertain King James at Whitehall. Food-wise, what could be salted
away was preserved for the bitter months ahead. The winter's cold
could be terrible. You had to clutch at health for all you were
worth. You could become low.
"Keep good fires," the Revd
Sydney Smith advised a depressed friend. "Winter wild, and winter
drear Surely wintertime is here," we sang in the village school.
But in church we sang "Brightest and best of the sons of the
morning". Reginald Heber wrote this entrancing Epiphany hymn after
discovering the Olney Hymns. He was so youthful, and,
alas, so vulnerable to the destructive Indian heat. He listened to
his hymn being sung in a Raj church below the Himalayas. It is
exotic, and a far cry from Cowper's pleading "Heal us,
Many old country people
called Twelfth Night "the real Christmas". It was also a trickster
time, when boys became girls and bonfires from the old gods
challenged the light of Christ. When ice and snow made it
impossible to work, play took over. See a typical Dutch
winterscape: as it is far colder inside, everyone is outside,
skating, running, drinking, shouting. In freezing Victorian
classrooms, the children would be told to stand up and "beat your
arms" to get the circulation going. One reason for our present
post-Twelfth Night aches is that our blood barely circulates.
Families dine on sofas, not at tables. But then the Three Kings
probably dined on a carpet.
I could pick a bunch of primroses. Not that I will; for their
open presence near the house must not be disturbed. But here they
are, about a dozen of them, in the Epiphany sunshine, forerunners
of thousands. The sodden oak-leaves of the rains are dry and
conversational. The sky is a goldmine. Lots of mud about. The
church smells of pine needles and wax, and damp uncollected cards.
I am to lay at Christ's feet my "burden of carefulness". I know
exactly what the writer is getting at. So should we all.