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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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