Just how bleak was the midwinter?

Does Bethlehem get snow?

Singing and thinking about Christmas carols (as one does a lot at this time of year), sometimes an unexpected thought strikes you. I found myself speculating on the weather in Bethlehem. One carol was talking about the bleak midwinter with snow on snow (and the accompaniment always sounds as though it’s adding another two layers) and another one was talking about soft winds blowing through the olive trees. They couldn’t both be right, I thought. So I started thinking about how our conception of the first Christmas is conditioned by our own experience rather than by what was (probably) true.

Crib scene in the snow
Plenty of snow around here
You have to have snow at Christmas

Weather is the first assumption we make : if you play Word Association Football with anyone and start with the word ‘Christmas’, you will almost certainly get snow as the first or second word following.  Christmas cards are full of snow.  We picture carol singers as rosy-faced, swaddled up in warm layers, standing in the snow to sing, and even singing about snow (especially if they are singing other songs as well as carols : Jingle Bells, White Christmas etc).  (If anyone wants the liturgical music for during Christmas masses, check out the Gentle Guide to my music for that at www.musicformass.co.uk.)

Not every Christmas is white

Some of the older carols have more temperate weather.  In While shepherds watched, the shepherds are ‘all seated on the ground’, which they certainly woudn’t be if it was under a foot of snow.  In The first Nowell, they are lying in the fields, which implies a certain degree of relaxation, if not necessarily comfort.  If the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem had meant trekking through deep snow, Joseph and Mary would have planned it differently, especially knowing that the baby might arrive  at some point on the way.  Elizabeth, with her own baby safely delivered a few months back, would surely have expressed a strong opinion against foolhardy travelling.  To go for a more modern carol, Little Donkey has them travelling on a dusty road, which would be easier going than Falklands-style yomping.  There’s lots of snow in Good King Wenceslas, but that, of course, is set in Bohemia (by St Agnes’ fountain, which presumably had frozen up); however, I’m sure that lots of people carry that idea of ‘deep and crisp and even’ across to their mental crib scene.

crib scne inside initial
Definitely a bit of snow, but just lying tidily on the ground
Victorian Christmases always had snow (thank you, Mr Dickens)

It just goes to show how we take our own experience and apply it.  We get cold going to church at Christmas, so Joseph and Mary must have found it cold travelling to Bethlehem.  Brueghel the Elder’s depiction of Joseph and Mary arriving for the census is clearly set in a Flemish winter, and makes you shiver.   A lot of the serious snow is in Victorian carols, and this is the period when so much of the Christmas myth (as opposed to the Bible events) was set into the modern collective consciousness.  See amid the winter’s snow, In the bleak midwinter, both Victorian carols, show clearly  how North European weather has been imposed onto the Middle Eastern narrative. Past three o’clock, despite appearances, is a Victorian piece of writing, with its ‘cold and frosty morning’.  As if to prove my point, this morning in a charity shop, I spotted a snow globe where the scene was a little crib.  I nearly photographed it, but it was such an ugly little object that I couldn’t bring myself to.  Here’s a different snowy crib, though.

back view of angel covered in snow
Flying must be tough when your wings are full of snow
What about round little Bethlehem, long, long ago?

I wanted to look at what the weather might really have been like, but of course there are no weather records that stretch back so far.  Even combining any available evidence and speculation, we can see that there have been fluctuations anyway over the last two or three thousand years.  Nowadays the average winter temperature in the Holy Land is around 7 degrees C – cold, but not snowy.  Then I realised that the best account of what the weather used to be like is in the psalms.  What do they say about the weather?

Evidence of snow in the Psalms

There is almost no snow in the Psalms, and it’s there for its qualities rather than as a real presence : ‘Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow ‘ (Ps 50/51), jewels flashing ‘like snow on Mount Zalmon’ (Ps 67/68), though real snow is mentioned as falling ‘white as wool’ (Ps 147/148) and ‘hail, snow and mist’ are called upon to praise God in Psalm 148/149.  There is rain by the bucketload, storms, earthquakes, hurricanes and other mighty winds, and I’ve already talked about clouds in a previous blog. God hurls down hailstones like crumbs and hoarfrost like ashes in Psalm 147/148, but that’s all the psalm references to actual wintry weather.  Snow turns up occasionally in other books of the Old Testament, and even in the Gospels (the Transfiguration, Matt 23.3 and Mark 9.3),  where it is invoked to show how dazzlingly white Jesus’ garments were.  So everyone hearing the narrative knows about snow and knows what it looks like, otherwise the comparisons wouldn’t work, but it’s not a frequent occurrence as it is in (say) Northumberland in the winter months.

Metaphorical snow still very chilly

T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi (that’s a brilliant link where you can actually hear him reading it aloud) makes it clear what is actually going on here.  The hard snowy journey is a metaphor for life and a difficult quest, but Eliot keeps the snow to the mountains, and shows Bethlehem as below the snowline.  I think this is probably because he was thinking of it as a real geographical place rather than a Christmas card picture.  Even among the Victorian hymn-writers,  the snow at Christmas time is a version of the pathetic fallacy and shows how hard and cold our hearts are before the Christchild comes to soften them.  So the emphasis is on the ‘bleak’ rather than on the midwinter.

crib scene with naked baby
This can’t be real snow or the poor baby would be covered

You really notice how European our imagery is if you happen to spend Christmas near the Equator or in the southern hemisphere.  It isn’t just that you can’t really appreciate Christmas dinner when it’s hot outside; nearly all the familiar songs feel out of place and time.  You can see how Christmas is laid over older celebrations; it’s impossible to imagine celebrating Yule or Saturnalia in the Antipodes (unless you’re making a point).

All out of darkness we have light

The other major image used in carols is of darkness and Christ coming as a light (John 1 of course, Isaiah ditto, but lots of other places too), and certainly in the Northern hemisphere, dark and winter are closely related.  In many older carols, the idea of light breaking through darkness is more common than the snow topos (How brightly shines the morning star, Angels from the realms of glory, Silent Night (‘Son of God, love’s pure light /Radiant beams from thy holy face’), the ‘bright sky’ in Away in a Manger, and there’s a lovely old carol called O Babe divine (described as ‘Old English adapted’), where the image keeps repeating : ‘O holy child, my dim heart’s gleam,/O brighter than the sunny beam! […..]O prince of peace, my dark soul’s light! /Thou art a day without a night’.  This neatly carries us back to another carol, As with gladness men of old, which takes its central image of the last verse straight out of Revelation : ‘In the heavenly country bright need they no created light, /Thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down’.

Snow’s significance can easily melt away

Our associations are precious and important to us, and of course we can picture Christmas any way we like.  We deck our mental cribs with holly and have robins hopping around outside them as they do in our own garden because we want Jesus to be as close to us as possible.  The event was a real historical event, but what is important for me is how it affects me here and now.  It doesn’t matter whether there was real snow at the first Christmas, but whether we celebrate it nowadays with warm hearts, which is exactly the point which Christina Rosetti is making in In the bleak midwinter.  The danger for us all is brilliantly encapsulated by C.S. Lewis.  A fallen world without hope is ‘always winter and never Christmas’.  That’s a terrible thought, and thank God, we don’t need to worry about it.  Real tidings of comfort and joy.  Merry Christmas.

decorated mediaeval hedghog
Christmas decorations: everyone can do their bit


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




Advent hymns shouldn’t be penitential

Not about psalms this time, but Advent hymns

I’m stepping outside my comfort zone to comment on some of the other music you might be considering using over the Advent season. (I think the only other time I’ve done this was in the blog on wedding music.)  This is because I realised when I was writing my Gentle Guide to the Christmas music that it didn’t really cover Advent, even though I have strong opinions about the hymns we have at this time of year.

Woman at desk, man standing in front
Volmar asking why I’m going off-topic
Advent is not another Lent

Too many people seem to see Advent as a mini-Lent, where the music should be penitential, but there are various clues around indicating that this should not be the case.  In the first place, we don’t lose the Alleluia during Advent.  This is very important!  In Lent it is not allowed to pass our lips from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil, but during Advent, we sing the Alleluia verse every week.  We do not say or sing the Gloria during Advent, just as we don’t during Lent, but I think this is more to make us miss it and be happy to sing it on Christmas or Easter night (though it’s a nuisance for music directors because then the congregation always gives the impression of never having sung it before, which is really not what you want to happen with what is meant to be a shout of praise).

Advent is for getting ready

Advent is a time of preparation, but joyous and very focussed preparation.  I’ve talked before about it being like a mini-pregnancy.  Just as, in our own families, we don’t talk about the coming arrival until it’s obvious or even hard to miss (my mother-in-law’s rule for this was that you make sure you tell people before they tell you), you can’t expect the Church to keep celebrating the growth of the baby until the late stages when the end is in sight.  And anyway, we have to telescope the Lord’s whole life into our annual cycle (even if we have three different sets of readings), so we can’t dwell too long on any bit of it.  So we have the Annunciation in March, and then we don’t think about the baby as such, because we are celebrating and considering his adult life and work,  until Advent, when his arrival becomes our overwhelming consideration.

Practical preparations….

How do we prepare for the arrival of a baby?  We get everything ready, the clothes, the cradle, the towels, the linen.  We start thinking about how it is finally, really, going to happen.  We get our heads round the idea of this new person.  We make arrangements, for the other children, for visitors.  We plan ahead.

Of course, Mary couldn’t do this (though I bet she had a little collection of clothes tucked away somewhere in the donkey’s saddlebags).  She was on the move, unsure when things were going to happen, away from her neighbours and friends, away from Joseph’s home where they were still trying to get used to being married.  But I am sure that she wasn’t spending the time singing mournful songs and beating her breast (painful anyway when pregnant).  We know she trusted God to know what he was doing, so she wasn’t worried or fearful, but she must have been looking forward to meeting this baby who was even more special than all the others.

still knitting even after the baby is born … there’s never enough time to do everything
…and keeping cheerful

Obviously Advent does have some things in common with Lent.  It has purple vestments (except for Gaudete Sunday), and fasting during even six weeks was common at some earlier periods of the Church’s existence.  It’s still the practice of the Orthodox Church.  Even for non-religious people it makes sense to ease up on consumption before the great feast (in all senses) that is Christmas.  But it shouldn’t be mournful.  I think the gloomy aspect of Advent is probably rooted in identifying the arrival of the Lord as the Second Coming, but this can be overdone.  Yes, it’s a secondary meaning, but let’s not lose sight of the primary one.

everyone enjoying themselves; singing sets the mood
Choosing music to match

This is where the choice of hymns is so important.  For the Christmas baby, we get ready our hymns, our Advent carols, our special Alleluias, preparing them with love just like getting all the linen ready.   I am sorry there are so few direct links in the suggestions that follow, but it turned out to be impossible or too time-consuming to find decent recordings on-line.  This is partly because I have decided not to link to choirs that won’t allow women to sing, but also because there aren’t many YouTubes of straightforward choral hymn-singing.  And so many people sing them really ponderously.  But you shouldn’t have any trouble tracking them down, I’ve definitely stuck to mainstream here.

There aren’t very many Advent hymns in common use (it’s only four Sundays, after all).  The greatest of them all, O come, O come, Emmanuel, is in a minor key, because it is focussed on the long yearning for the Messiah.  It’s probably a French tune, fifteenth-century, and based on chant, so modal.  But please note the words of the chorus : Rejoice, rejoice!  This is not meant to be a dirge!

Two figures in a mediaeval frame
Let’s all sing a melodious (happy) song
Carols for before Christmas, and a bit of Latin

There are even a couple of proper carols that you can use specifically during Advent : Angelus ad virginem and Creator alme siderum, if your congregation is up to singing in Latin.  Plus of course the Salve Regina and any setting of the Magnificat that you like.  These are all fine as pre-Christmas music.

Specifically Advent carols and hymns : French..

Moving on into English, we can take a little European tour, grateful for the traditional pre-Christmas music across the Channel.  Outstanding here are Gabriel’s message (French melody again, more specifically Basque, but so well established in English) and O come, divine Messiah (French traditional, and a real toe-tapper;  Charpentier uses it).

..and German hymns are always a good idea

There are (of course) some great German hymns, different versions of Wachet auf, really good for Advent, and old German hymn tunes to familiar English words like Comfort, comfort, O my people (wonderful rhythm, really dancy), The advent of our King, Of the Father’s heart begottenCome thou long-expected JesusWhen the King shall come again (great tune), and so on, plus more modern ones like  The King shall come when morning dawns.

Modal and minor

If you like modal, there’s See how the Virgin waits for him, which is an old Jewish tune, and Let all mortal flesh keep silent, though I’d keep that one for later in Advent.  Hills of the North rejoice is another one that sounds very minor and then mutates, so I’m tucking it in here with the modals.

Follow the readings

You really more or less have to have On Jordan’s bank for the Second Sunday of Advent, given the readings, but you could also have something Holy Spirit-ish, because it’s all about Jesus’ baptism; or even Breathe on me, Breath of God, which always feels appropriate for baptisms and confirmations.

One or two lovely things to sing in Advent

I would like to put in a word for my favourite Advent hymn, because it feels like a carol : People look east, and I defy anyone to sing it at a decent speed and not feel cheered (you may also end up with an earworm, but it’s a good one).   I’d happily sing that more than once in Advent, and as it happens, that is another great old French tune.  You can also be creative in your choice of other carols.    There’s no reason why you shouldn’t sing It came upon the midnight clear towards the end of Advent and before Christmas.  It has such wonderful words, and it takes a wide view of the period that is Christmas, so it doesn’t feel like jumping the gun as so many carols would because of their stress on Christmas night specifically.  And it has glorious big angels.

mediaeval organ with two people
Volmar and me back on the same page

These are only suggestions, and of course you will have your own favourites.  But keep the music joyful, even if some of it is low-key, and don’t sing it slowly and lugubriously.   I was horrified to see one piece of advice for Advent hymns include the Dies irae, on the grounds that it’s about the Lord’s coming.  Yes but no, I feel.  Waiting for a baby is a joyful time.  We need to get ready, within as well as without, but the Lord himself said we shouldn’t be looking miserable even when fasting.  Lent fasting is penitential; Advent fasting is more because we’re so excited.  Love, the Lord, is on the way, people.  Let’s get ready.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.