Cats: on Christmas cards, but not in the Bible

Each year a special Christmas animal
Whose turn is it this year?

Every year there’s a noticeable particular animal trend in Christmas card pictures.   One year it was penguins, and they were everywhere. It’s been horses (often attached to stagecoaches),

decorated mediaeval hedghog
another festive Christmas hedgehog….nothing new under the sun

occasionally stags, or even hedgehogs in recent years.  Sheep and donkeys often get a look in, but at least they are there in the Gospel narrative. Cutesy polar bears were around last year (nothing to do with the Nativity, and quite a strain. A less cutesy animal is hard to imagine, possibly only the giant squid).  Sometimes the animals are natural(istic), sometimes completely anthropomorphised (e.g. robins with waistcoats).  This year, one Hampshire council has opted for a sixteen-foot neon marmot as its main Christmas display, baffling at least some of its residents (and I have to say I don’t warm to the rodent-type animals, however Christmassily dressed).  I am still working from a very small sample, but I think this year’s animal may turn out to be a reindeer (again).  Maybe there’s a cycle, like Chinese astrological animals, though evidently a different selection (I’ve never seen a Christmas ox, or heard of a Chinese Year of the hedgehog).

lots of animals at once, all celebrating Christmas together as they do
Cats and Christmas

Cats nearly always feature among the Christmas cards, even if they aren’t the main animal that year.   A cosy scene with a fire, a chair, holly round the hearth and a cat curled up on a cushion : this seems to be an irresistible Christmas trope.  Cats represent comfort and cosiness, practically a personification of hygge.  You don’t even have to have a cat to understand the message here, and celebrating warmth and comfort in the middle of a dark winter antedates the Christian era.  So there are lots of cats on Christmas cards; but (except for much later, especially twentieth-century versions) they are not present in the Bethlehem scene.  (Someone actually said that about the marmot, and one can only agree.  They aren’t native to Britain …. or Palestine.)

Nearly everything else, but no cats!
Cats are uncanonical

When I wrote a blog on animals in the psalms, I was slightly surprised to find there were no cats in the psalms at all.  I was even more surprised, on extending my research, to find there were no cats in the Bible (this is making me feel like Edna Mode and ‘no capes’ in The Incredibles).  There are obvious reasons for this.  For a long time the Israelites were in Egypt as slaves.  They preserved their difference and resisted integration by defining themselves against the Egyptians, in various ways.  The Egyptians had a very striking cat-god; the Jews avoided cats, and did not have them in their houses.

The great Egyptian cat at the British Museum,
The animals which are in the Bible

There are big cats in the Bible : mountain lions and proper lions, among the wild beasts and dwellers on the mountains.  They are creatures which the psalmist prays to be delivered from.  But he doesn’t mention domestic animals much.  There are the ones which represent your wealth (sheep, cattle, goats), and there are the wild ones which are a threat to them (lions, wolves, packs of dogs).  There are the (mostly) harmless and beautiful ones whose function is to demonstrate God’s beauty and power (everything else, including birds, fish monsters and hyraxes), but the fireside cat does not feature.

Adam with assorted beasts
Here are the animals waiting to be named, including mediaeval (but not Biblical) cats, bottom left
Putting the feline back into festive

Cat lovers are not to be thwarted, though.  There are lots of books for children which tell the story of the Nativity from the point of view of the stable cat.  There are books about adopting a kitten for Christmas, Christmas carols for cats and even a cat version of The Night Before ChristmasHere is a link to such things if you don’t believe me, and that is only one of many.  That one actually says, disarmingly, ‘It is truly amazing how many great Cat Christmas books are available for the holidays’.  Indeed it is.

a musical cat preparing to join in with the carols
Cats who walk by themselves

These are all fairly gentle and domesticated cats, though, and I have to say that I find the ‘otherness’ of cats is the main part of their charm.  I like the way they leave you alone and have a certain aloofness, more like the Egyptian statues than the ones that look like a version of a teddy (I can feel myself shedding readers as I pursue this!).

Holy Family plus John the Baptist and his cat (Barocci)
A special cat in a special poem

I was lucky enough to read Christopher Smart’s lines on his cat Jeoffry when I was quite little.  I didn’t understand them very well, but I was charmed, and the lines stuck in my mind.   (I came across them in a wonderfully imaginative anthology of children’s verse edited by Louis Untermeyer.)   Smart was a strange man who lived in the eighteenth century and spent a lot of time in an institution for the insane (I’m not calling it a ‘mental hospital’ at this date, as I suspect it was horrific), wrote various books and died eventually in a debtors’ prison.  The lines on Jeoffry are from Jubilate Agno  (Rejoice in the Lamb), which he wrote while in the madhouse, though it wasn’t published until 1939.  Benjamin Britten set some of it to music (here’s a link).

the Minister’s cat is a musical cat
Jubilate Agno, not quite like anything else

It’s a weird work, almost like a compendium.  There are whole sections where each line starts with ‘Let’, and others where the first word is ‘For’, there are alphabetical sections, there are parts which are funny and other parts where it’s unbearably poignant.  Each line is a single sentence, which lends the whole work a sort of declamatory character, despite its being so personal.   Smart is a polymath.  He knows a  lot, but the charm is in how he puts it together.  He is a most precise observer of the natural world, with plenty of time to observe it, and he sees references to God in everything.   He is fascinated by language and music; he loves to make lists; he creates odd correspondences; he is a synaesthetic.   He is completely original and uncompromising.  Some of the time you can’t work out what he is talking about, but you feel that there is a key if only you could find it.

Jeoffry, a religious cat

Jeoffry is out of one of the ‘For’ sections, and the advantage of coming to this strange poem via Jeoffry is that it is such an acute and exact portrayal of a real, beloved cat.  And of course he is a religious cat; the second line of this section is ‘For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him’.  Smart describes him so vividly that you can see him ‘wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness’.  It’s really difficult to quote from Smart because a lot of the effect is in the accumulation, and I would want to go on for too long, so I recommend looking it up (full text here), and I will just mention a couple more lines : ‘For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. /For he is of the tribe of Tiger.’  Indeed he is, and William Blake would recognise him.

Leonardo could do cats as well
Putting cats back into the Bible

Smart thought that there should be cats in the Bible.  Indeed, he tells us that they are there, brought out of Egypt where they were numerous and plentiful (sorry, Smart’s style is catching!) : ‘For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. /For every family had one cat at least in the bag.’   You will search for this in the book of Exodus totally in vain; it’s not Moses, it’s Smart.  Smart feels that every home should have a cat because of its services in dealing with pests, but also ‘For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit’, which is exactly what my eldest son would say of his cat today.

Cats packed for travelling
Pest control

The practical point of cats is that they deter rats and mice, though Smart mentions this almost in passing, because he enjoys so many other aspects of Jeoffry.  He does say though that the cat ‘made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. /For he killed the Icneumon-rat very pernicious by land’, and in the mighty granaries of Egypt the cats must have been very useful.  What did the Israelites do without cats, to protect their stores?

Dealing very efficiently with the Icneumon-rat

Apparently you can also use ferrets or weasels as pest-control, so one suggestion is that the Israelites had ‘house weasels’.  I think these are, however, unlikely ever to figure as Christmas animals. Ferrets and weasels are always baddies (witness The Wind in the Willows), and fairly rat- and mouse-like themselves.   Their size, their type of fur, and their faces are against them.  (I cannot resist making another reference to the marmot.)

Felix feliciter

Christmas cats are here to stay.  They mean comfort and luxuriating in it, which is what we all enjoy at Christmas (after singing our hearts out earlier, of course).  We can only aspire to their total relaxation and satisfaction. I shall leave the last word to Smart and Jeoffry : ‘For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good cat.’

Gainsborough cats

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.

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.