RETURNING from the Advent carol service, there was an added sharpness to the air as we drove down the ancient track to the farmhouse. It was as though a jewelled addition to the forthcoming Christmas music was sounding in the still-leaved trees. The perfection of Charles Wesley’s “Come thou long expected Jesus” hung in the air like a great longing for God. The compression of so much theology and poetry and music into 16 lines became a kind of magic.
The season is both enchanting and frightening. The church year begins with exquisite joy and also terror: Christmas is coming, but so is the day of judgement. I am somehow consoled by lines such as: “So, when thou comest at the last, And earth’s long history is past, May we be set at thy right hand, And with thine own in glory stand.”
Except that these confusions and certainties are now a kind of theological poetry, a past music which one would have to be a first-century George Herbert to understand.
Meanwhile, the horses have been sheltering in the stable on Duncan’s farm, and I, too, find places out of a chilly wind to start the pre-Christmas clearing in the garden. The sky is pale, and at night the car lights seem to pierce an infinity of cold — and there is more to come. The cats have made up their minds to sleep all this out. They like fresh bowls of water, and a ceaseless supply of biscuits. And endless cosiness, of course.
I begin to draw out a new book — just a few lines, as we used to say in our childhood letters. Just a few lines to Australia or New York. Just a few lines to me from people who are saying “Don’t expect too much.” Including a new race of correspondents who no longer put pen to paper. But a few lines from my dear novelist friend; her wit runs ahead of her pen because she has so much to tell me, and I her. Life entertains her — sometimes bewilderingly, mostly lovingly. She is to be a guest at one of the Oxford colleges at Christmas. I believe that this act of worship was first devised at Salisbury in 1918. If not, no letters, please.
When I was a boy, we spoke to relations in Australia on the phone. It cost £1 a minute, and there were such frightening sounds that we could hardly get out a greeting. We were like letter-writers who filled the page with just a few lines. “Is it snowing?” the Australians would ask. “No.” Usually it snows in East Anglia only on Christmas cards.
It was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and the novelist Charles Dickens, who between them laid the foundation of our present holiday. What they practised miraculously survives. The sounds we have are bells in the church tower, and the till in the market town, which provides an acceptable music.
Back home, on the mantelpiece, there is a plaster group travelling to Bethlehem: a man with a bag of carpenters tools, and a pregnant woman on a donkey. This ornament was called a fairing. It was something won at a coconut shy. All my life this homeless couple have looked for sanctuary as they travel on through the Christmas cards.