Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Year's Midnight - Celia Rees

' 'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ; The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk, Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph. '

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being The Shortest Day - John Donne

For John Donne, the shortest day was St Lucy's Day, the 12th December. For us it is the 21st. We are a day away, but as I write this and a dismal afternoon turns more drear and the light fades, it feels as if it is already here. The Winter Solstice has always been seen as significant, recognised all over the world and celebrated as a time of re-birth, a time of hope and re-affirmation as the year turns back towards the light.

Short days and long nights have always made this a good time to read. What else is there to do, once Christmas is over? It's a chance to withdraw from the world for a little while, curl up with a good book and maybe a glass of something, and read in front of the fire. I guess everyone has their favourite seasonal reading, their favourite Christmas stories and poems and there have been some memorable children's books set at this time of the year. When I was a child, I didn't particularly enjoy the stories of Beatrix Potter and I didn't like Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit. I preferred the rougher charm of her Sam Pig and Brock the Badger. My favourite story from the Tales of Sam Pig was The Christmas Box, and my favourite part of that story was when Brock the Badger goes to the Christmas Fair. The light is going and no-one notices a 'little brown man' going from stall to stall with his silver penny, buying things for his wards, Sam, Tom, Bill and Ann. I used to look out for him in country markets, late on a December afternoon. I still do.

'Miracles happen on Christmas Eve', Brock says, and maybe it is true. it is a magical time of the year when it is possible to believe strange things could happen, like badgers going to market, so it is little wonder that two of the best children's fantasies ever written are set at this time of the year. John Masefield's hugely influential Box of Delights is exactly what it says on the cover. First published in 1935, every subsequent British fantasy writer owes an immense debt to Masefield's imagination and his inventiveness. The book is set in deep mid-winter with the hero, Kay, returning from boarding school. He meets a mysterious Punch and Judy man, the owner of the box, who then entrusts it to Kay to avoid it falling in to the hands of the evil Abner Brown. The gripping, powerful story unfolds over the few days Christmas. The weather and the feeling of dislocation, of being out of normal time, that is often present during this period, add significantly to the power of the fantasy and the sense of danger and isolation.

The other book on my Solstice reading list is Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. Another brilliantly inventive, original and influential fantasy, like the Box of Delights, it takes place over Christmas and New Year and deals with the battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of the light. Perhaps both books are so powerful and convincing because they tap into the atavistic fear that fuels our midwinter festivals, rituals and celebrations, a fear that goes back thousands of years, the terror that the warmth and light may never return and we will be kept in a state of freezing darkness. M. R. James used to tell his ghost stories at Christmas and that seems entirely right and fitting. The impulse to read and tell stories of this kind, involving supernatural and magic, may be very ancient, a way of warding off forces that might engulf us, forces that grow in the darkness and shrink in the light.

What's your favourite Solstice reading?


Stroppy Author said...

I love that poem, Celia. Thank you for putting it at the start - a great way to kick the day off.

M.R.James, definitely, is on my Christmas reading list. But the best Christmas book of all time, for me, has to be Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Christmas festivities, the cold, hostile weather, the games that turn out to be very sinister, the hint of love, the terror of death, the outside world set against the inside world... I think I need to do a retelling.

What an inspiring post!

Freyalyn said...

I've just read 'The Dark is Rising' for exactly the same reason as you. I shall fish out my 'Gawain and the Green Knight' and be grateful to Stroppy Author for the reminder. I'm currently embarking on 'The Riddle Master's Game' because it seemed appropriate at the time of year. And 'The Hogfather' is always read sometime over Yuletide.

adele said...

Lovely lovely post with one of my favourite poems to start it off!!

Penny Dolan said...

I always read Robert Louis Stevenson's poem "Christmas at Sea" by RLS. An almost unbearably poignant ending.

Sue Purkiss said...

The Dark Is Rising is my Christmas go-to book, and I think you're absolutely right; it's to do with that sense of being suspended in time. I particularly remember the scene where they're singing Good King Wenceslas, and Will gradually becomes aware that he's in two times at once. Beautifully done.

Carole Anne Carr said...

The Box to Delights - it's wonderful!!!

Celia Rees said...

Thank you Stroppy Author for reminding me of Sir Garwain and the Green Knight - one of the oldest and still one of the best.

KMLockwood said...

Lovely post, Celia.
My poem choice would be:
'The Oxen' by Thomas Hardy.
My book recommendation for younger readers & sentimental types like me:
The Children of Green Knowe - L.M.Boston
Definitely concur with the other suggestions - I love Sir Gawain, Susan Cooper,Box of Delights ( the BBC theme tune haunts me to this day).
Thank you.

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh yes! The Box of Delights has been my constant Christmas read ever since I was given it at the age of seven. And may I recommend Ann Lawrence's retelling of the Gawain and Loathly Lady story: 'The Hawk of May'!

Ann Watson said...

And isn't the best story of all the true Christmas Story of the birth in Bethlehem. It seems even more real to me this year after having visited Bethlehem in October and seen the alleged birth place, but what was even more poignant was the concrete wall surrounding the town and the guard towers and security posts. Peace on Earth?

madwippitt said...

Box of Delights and Dark is Rising are both books I return to every Christmas - plus Doomsday Book by Connie Willis which is the book I wish I'd written ...

(I love the TV adaptation of Box of Delights too ...)