"In the bleak midwinter, frost wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago."
I have always loved this carol. Christina Rossetti's melancholy lyrics come closer than most other Christmas music to capturing the heart of winter at the turning of the year. She evokes the deep, expectant cold at the eve of the nativity, and her frozen, boreal landscape amplifies the accumulated cares and burdens of the human spirit. Rossetti was a pre-Raphaelite poet, and one detects the solstice along with the savior in her haunting words. They have all the romantic pathos of a Waterhouse painting, and yet the pure, bittersweet notes composed by Gustav Holst to accompany the carol have more of that crystalline, Maxfield Parrish hue.
It is bitter cold here in the Litchfield Hills, and for the second night running we should dip below zero. Those brave or unfortunate enough to be abroad before dawn and after moon-set may witness the Leonids' display. I have an early dawn departure ahead of me, but I will probably still be deep in eiderdown until near sunrise. If I do leave the house in the darkest hour, I'll probably recall a Christmas from my youth when the temperature reached a heart-stopping 32 below. We had horses in the stable that we needed to keep warm on that morning, and a pet rabbit that moved into the house for a few days in the face of the bitter cold, so we didn't get around to opening presents until almost noon.
There was the year a flock of evening grosbeaks descended on our feeders on Christmas Day. We had a long, wooden bench covered in seed for ground feeders out beyond the French doors on the brick patio, and there must have been thirty of these marvelous birds clustered on those few square feet of black oil sunflower seed.
My father's birthday is a week before Christmas, and for many years we celebrated with an overnight trip to Manhattan on the 4th week of Advent. We'd head down the Taconic Parkway from northern Dutchess County, winding through the Hudson Highlands on those narrow lanes with no shoulders that were designed for leisurely motoring rather than the daily commute. We arrived on the upper west side in time for Dad to find an unobtrusive parking garage and pick out a Chinese restaurant for dinner.
After dinner, we always attended the Paul Winter Consort's Winter Solstice performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This new age fusion of jazz, world beat, gospel and the vocalizations of animals has been an annual event at the cathedral for more than a quarter century, now. I remember one year when the great, booming of a vast log drum proceeded down the aisle as if to kindle the fires of Yule. Paul Winter's alto saxophone howling with a chorus of wolves, Eugene Friesen's cello keening like the Wendigo or leaping like Cossacks, and the unparalleled assemblage of percussion instruments reverberating through the world's largest Gothic cathedral were hallmarks of our annual winter pilgrimage to Gotham.
My Dad attended St. Thomas Choir School for 7th and 8th grade - his boy's soprano cracking to tenor in his second year - and we often took in the service of lessons and carols the following day before heading up 5th Avenue to gaze at the window displays and do most of our Christmas shopping at 1/2 dozen bookstores along the way. The subway rumbles beneath the church every two minutes, and so the city is as much part of the service at St. Thomas as the music.
These two appearances in Church were often our only time we'd darken a sacred door for the rest of the year. Religion is a deeply personal thing in our family. My sister, I think, sometimes attends Quaker meeting, and has considered ministry as a way to better serve community and foster social change. My father attended Episcopal seminary without final ordination, finding his vocation in teaching instead of the pulpit. I celebrated one memorable Winter Solstice with the Waters of the Brandywine Grove of new-reformed Druids, and must say that any religion with Glenfiddich as its sacrament is worth considering. Faith is elusive, but hope is evident even, and especially, in the bleak midwinter, with its frozen sap and starry skies and promise of Spring.