Christmas Special

Here are a selection of articles with a Christmas theme.

Christmas Cards

The cards which straddle walls and shelves,

with Father Christmases and elves,

and reindeers, robins, Yuletide bells,

and all the rest which cast their spells:

the year-end partying and booze,

the after-Christmas-dinner snooze,

which ease the winter to expectant spring

and all the joy that Easter brings.

 

But what of God this Christmastide?

Are those who care to peep inside

and read the glitzy greetings there

within each card, are they aware

that Christmas is when God to earth

came down, and Mary gave Him birth

as one of us, our Saviour and friend;

a God who loved us to the end;

redeemed us dying on a cross –

real and near -  no Yuletide gloss?

                                           John Waddington-Feather ©


The Garland Ghost Story

          St Michael’s Church was quite large and stood on a walled circular mound surrounded by ancient yews with a solitary oak near the lych gate. Its site and name suggested at once there’d been a pre-Christian temple on the site.  Other pagan monuments and symbols were all around: the standing stone in the graveyard, and there was a stone circle on the hill above the hamlet, where, lore had it, a witch had once milked cows dry. Then there were the massive oak, the sad yews and the huge bunches of mistletoe which clung to the trees in the surrounding woods and orchards.  All bore witness to a Druidic past and earlier religions lost in the mists of time. 

          The name of its patron saint, Michael, also pointed to there being a pagan temple where the church now stood.  Michael was the saint appointed from the heavenly host to drive out evil spirits with his flaming sword from any church built on a pagan site, cleansing the place from previous blood rites.  Those had long gone with the priests who’d performed them; and what terrible sacrificial rites the yews and oak had witnessed centuries before, they kept to themselves.

          A millennium of burials had filled the graveyard whose headstones leaned at crazy angles.  The oldest were covered in lichen and were illegible so soft was the sandstone from which they were made.  Time and the elements had erased any names and epitaphs and there remained only mementi mori, reminders of death, the skull and crossbones. Earlier generations than ours were not as squeamish facing death, which was for them simply the transition into a better – or worse - life than this where you reaped your just rewards or suffered for your sins.

          Inside the church were more reminders of death and the past: the tomb of a medieval knight, the lozenge-shaped memorials bearing the coats-of-arms of local gentry, and, most poignant of all, a solitary bridal garland in a glass case on the west wall over the door; the garland a young bride would have carried on her wedding day had she lived, but in fact was placed on her coffin as a wreath, for she’d died before she could be wed.  Such sad garlands are found in churches throughout the county.

          The garland was connected to a young couple whose names were on a memorial tablet on the wall beneath.  They’d died the same day from a cholera epidemic which had ravaged the area in the late eighteenth century.  “Sacred to the memory of John Edward Tudor and his betrothed bride, Sarah Mary Davies.  Died December 20th 1780 both 22 years of age.  May they rest together in Christ.”

          As I read the memorial I tried to imagine how their families must have felt.  Many from the surrounding farms and hamlets had died in the terrible epidemic.  The dates on the gravestones outside were proof of that, just as the many names on the war memorial were proof of another terrible slaughter wrought a hundred and fifty years later. The solitary wedding garland though faded was still intact after more than two hundred years.

          I hadn’t long been there when the church was decorated for Christmas.  Holly and yew branches filled the window ledges and a huge Christmas tree decorated with baubles and a Bethlehem Star stood near the font.  Colourful flowers packed vases either side of the altar and below the pulpit.  A crib made by the school-children was placed by the sanctuary and candles had been set at intervals around the church ready for the Carol Service in the New Year.

          The porch, also, was heavily decorated and hanging from its vaulted roof was a huge bunch of mistletoe.  I suspected mistletoe had been used in rites which pre-dated the Christian church and were embedded in the psyche of the parishioners from the past. Other rites like blessing the crops and the land fell to my lot as I got to know the church and its people better.  Certainly the age-old custom of couples kissing as they passed beneath the mistletoe was still practised, especially after Christmas Midnight Communion when they left the church.

          And it was on my first Christmas Eve, when I’d gone to prepare for Communion that it happened.  Old Roger, the church warden whose farm adjoined the church, had told me when I’d arrived in the parish about the ghostly couple who appeared mysteriously each Christmas Eve and kissed under the mistletoe.  Of course, I, a townie, coming from the industrial North, didn’t believe him, but I listened patiently as he told his tale in rich dialect and with wide eyes.  He believed it even if I didn’t.  Shropshire folk have vivid imaginations and are full of folk-tales; but the longer I stayed In Mucklebury, the more I was to discover they’re often based on fact. 

          My disbelief was to be proved wrong sooner than I expected, for on Christmas Eve as I left the lych gate at the entrance of the graveyard, finding my way through the dark by torchlight, I noticed a strange glow in the porch, a warm inviting glow.  At first I thought someone had been in the church before me to put on the lights, yet the rest of the church was in darkness.  

          Then as I drew nearer I saw the figures of a young couple facing each other under the mistletoe.  They were dressed in clothes of a bygone age, he in knee breeches and fine worsted jacket and she in a bridal gown holding a garland!  My mind raced and I walked on telling myself there was some kind of Christmas fancy dress party going on nearby and a couple had come into the porch to court. But when I was only metres away, they turned and smiled before slowly fading away, leaving the porch in darkness again.

          I rubbed my eyes.  I was tired and imagining things. Although I’d been startled by what I’d seen I never mentioned it to anyone, not even my wife, so you can imagine my surprise when I read out the banns of marriage the following Sunday.  They were the banns of a couple I’d never met, for their marriage entry had been made by my predecessor before he left. Old Roger had told me they were in church and we prayed for them later, but I faltered momentarily as I opened the register and read: “I publish the banns of marriage between John Edward Tudor, bachelor of this parish, and Sarah Mary Davies, spinster, also of this parish.  If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, you are to declare it.  This is for the first time of asking.”

          Only then as I read did it click they had the same names as the couple on the memorial tablet, and only when I met them afterwards over coffee in church did the meeting of the ghostly couple kissing under the mistletoe come flooding back to me.  The youngsters whose names I read out lived on the same farms and were from the same families several generations on.  As I chatted to them I was intrigued for I saw their strong resemblance to the couple in the porch.  It was uncanny, but still I said nothing.

          More was to come.  Some weeks later in the New Year, when I entered the church from the vestry to take the marriage ceremony, I’d a strange feeling that there were more guests than the packed congregation in the pews; and as I looked around I saw the ghostly couple in the porch standing at the back of the church looking on.  Around them were other ghostly onlookers, guests who should have witnessed their wedding two centuries earlier. The wedding went off well and as the couple left the church, they paused and kissed as was the custom under the mistletoe in the porch, bonding them in love with its age-old power.

The couple from the past were never seen again, for their wedding in the twenty first century completed what had begun centuries before.

An extract from a longer story by  John Waddington-Feather ©

   


Christmas in the Soviet Union

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, New Year was (and still is) the main celebration. As religion in the Soviet Union was suppressed, Christmas itself was not celebrated. Even today, Christmas day in Russia (which falls on 7th January), has become a private and purely religious event and much of what can be found in a western Christmas bears much resemblance to the Russian New Year.

In Russia, instead of Father Christmas, we have ‘Ded Moroz’ and ‘Snegurochka’ (‘Grandfather Frost’ and his granddaughter ‘Snowgirl’). They would host various celebrations for children in nurseries and schools and very often you would see them in street festivities in towns and cities, where traditionally huge decorated Christmas trees are put in the central squares. The Russian Grandfather Frost always carries a long white mace which he uses to freeze things around him.

The celebration starts on 31st December, when, traditionally, families gather together at the table from around 7 or 8pm. The day itself is spent with last minute preparations and cooking. We would have much loved, well known Soviet films and comedies on TV. One such film which is always shown on TV on 31st December (and which every single Russian person watches, if even only a small fragment, as we all know it by heart), is ‘The Irony of Fate’. Try this tradition this New Year and watch it on YouTube with English subtitles! Every Russian woman, while watching this film, makes traditional New Year salads: Winter salad and ‘Shuba’ (‘Herring under the Fur Coat’).  Winter salad consists of various boiled and cut vegetables together with some chopped ham or chicken and goes very well together with main dishes, such as ‘pelmeni’ (Russian beef ravioli) or meats.

 ‘Shuba’ is a very unusual, but very delicious’ salad made in layers of salted herring, together with grated potatoes, carrots, eggs and onions and a mayonnaise dressing. The final layer, the ‘fur coat’, is a layer of grated beetroot.

Every 31st December, it surprises me when I call all my Russian friends around the world, that every single person is making exactly the same salads ­- and watching exactly the same film – it makes me very happy! No celebration would be complete without a nice cake, the most traditional being one called ‘Napoleon’ – a cake with many thin layers of baked pastry with a filling of cream, made from condensed milk and butter. Many toasts will be given on 31st December, expressing gratitude and celebrating the Old Year; if this is not mentioned, the New Year might be unlucky!

The New Year starts with the chimes of the bells of the Kremlin in Red Square in Moscow and everybody should make a secret wish and drink champagne! Now is the time to go outside and celebrate with your neighbours and friends. In the city where I grew up, just after midnight, I remember walking with my family to the local big square with a Christmas tree to spend a couple of hours playing, going on huge icy slides, sledging, eventually meeting up with all our friends. Frozen, but happy, we would always end up at one of our friend’s flats for a cup of tea and some cake, or possibly even more food and champagne! After some sleep, it is the time for presents, which were always left under the Christmas tree at home.

I am happy that these traditions live on in our family in England – and our children love to celebrate both Christmas Day on the 25th as well as the Russian New Year!


The Christmas Card

Last week, while tidying some drawers I came across a Christmas card. It was carefully wrapped in ice blue tissue paper. In the evening light I studied it carefully  and allowed some fond memories to flood back to me.

The white card had yellowed round the edges over the years and the once bright paint colours had softened giving it a misty ethereal quality. The depiction of Mary, Joseph and Jesus though, had lost none of their magic. The stable looked more like a Canadian log cabin and the intense midnight blue sky held a large pointed star with large rays trailing from it.

I saw that the main figures were clumsily painted with the shepherds dressed in wobbily striped tunics and the kings with crowns floating over their heads. The crowns were painted with blobs of jewel colours in deep reds and purples. The flesh coloured paint on Mary’s face had merged with the small black eyes but the line of scarlet for the lips made her appear quite beautiful!

Some scratchy painted yellow hay had a smidge of bright pink on top of it with two blue eyes. This of course was the baby Jesus. The baby had been given a few short spikes of hair the same colour as the hay!

Two large heads of a donkey and a cow peeped out from the side of the stable with grins on their faces. Instead of olive trees, which would have been more appropriate on a card depicting the Holy Land the artist had chosen to add snow tipped fir trees instead!

I ran my hand across the bumpy remains of the silver glitter which once had highlighted most of the Christmas card. When opening the card the message read Happy Christmas Mum and Dad Love from Susan. My handwriting had faded over the years but it was still there.

My parents treasured all the cards my sister and I made for them over the years.

I smiled and slipped the card back into the tissue paper

Su Goode November 2020.


Shropshire Carol.

As blue hills meet the starlit sky

and roll up to old Wenlock Edge,

on such a night in Bethlehem

God sent to earth His heavenly pledge.

 

His Son, our Lord, a babe was born

inside a lowly stable bare;

and on this night through hill and dale

the Christmas bells call forth to prayer.

 

They ring on meadows gleaming white,

the frosty hedgerows round them lie;

where stark the oak trees’ gnarly limbs

stab leafless fingers at the sky.

 

And icy Severn silent flows

through frozen fields and flooded plains;

and Wrekin keeps its timeless watch

on ancient roads and ageless lanes.

 

The entire land in winter sleeps –

but yet expectancy’s abroad;

when midnight comes the bells will peal

the yearly Coming of the Lord!

 

                                                            John Waddington-Feather ©