Well, it’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?
How many times will we hear that phrase in the coming weeks? Quite a lot, we hope! Christmas means a lot to us, and many different things. Here are a few:
It’s all about children. Yes, of course it is. Seeing a child’s eyes light up with joy on Christmas Day is one of life’s greatest joys.
It’s all about presents. It certainly is. It’s a great way to show we value one another; not what people have done for us, but who they are, and all they mean to us.
It’s all about family. Can’t argue with that: it’s worth making a special effort to get everyone together at least once a year, but hopefully more often.
It’s all about food and drink. I’m in favour of that! Eating and drinking is the way communities have celebrated since earliest times, so let’s do it regularly!
It’s all about enjoying yourself. And a good laugh. And pantomimes. Oh yes it is! Don’t we wish every day was filled with joy and laughter?
It’s all about a holiday. Yes please! Taking a break is part of the necessary daily, weekly, annual lifecycle; what better time than before we start a new year.
Christmas is about Christ. Of course; but all of the above, too. “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In other words, God who loves the entire human family sent Jesus to become human, which means being born as a baby, and to live a human life, so that He could draw us back into relationship with Him – a relationship that will last for ever.
So as we see Christmas joy on children’s faces, receiving gifts which show our love for them, may we receive into our hearts the special gift of Jesus, that we may recapture that simple joy of knowing we’re loved enough to die for, loved enough to be wanted in God’s family. As we give presents, may we pray that those who receive them will know our love, and God’s, for them. As we meet with family and share a meal together – something Jesus himself asks us to do – may we vow to maintain good relationships with the wider family of our community. And whilst we eat, drink and party… feel free to do it for selfish enjoyment because God says we’re worth it, and also in celebration that Jesus Christ is the joy of Christmas. And that’s always true, even if some or all of the above will be missing from your Christmas this year.
I invite you to come along to celebrate Christmas with Jesus this year, as a member of the Village family and God’s family, and to open your heart to the best present the world was ever given.
Happy Christmas – and a wonderful new Year!
Yours in Jesus
November is a time of decay and renewal, says Ronald Blythe
RELENTLESS rain. It bounces off the oaks, which, in turn, rise from a lake of roots. Yesterday, I planted tubs of bulbs, and thought twice about the fallen leaves. Let them squelch. I read about life, and I sit by a deathbed. Each season begins with a kind of regret for what has gone before. Bees will be asleep, and not rattling soaking flowers.
In Massachusetts, I heard autumn being called “the fall” for the first time, and it was strangely exciting, as though east-coast English and American landscape were being rolled together in a single climate. But Thomas Hood’s words no longer apply:
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, o bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, o birds —
The Clean Air Act of the 1950s has seen off the fogs and left an assortment of mists, which, in turn, provide a range of delicate clouds. I live according to two calendars: one provided by the sharply suited weathermen on television, and the other by liturgy.
Matthew makes his way through the latter carrying a sword, a money bag, and a carpenter’s square. He is the apostle who stands at the gate of autumn. Although mid-November suggests a coming to an end of fruitfulness and energy, I find it a kind of waking-up call. It is when St Martin celebrates his “little summer”.
I remember a stumpy church, its roof blown off by cannonballs in the 17th century by Civil War guns. This was dedicated to this saint. He had given half his cloak to a native man. They made him Bishop of Tours. Somehow, he drifted to Colchester, a man who was familiar with warfare and whose shrine was blown apart. Wild plants have grown over its ruin as though to hide its exposure. Handsome aldermanic tools stood all around it. What did the Second World War poet say? “Softly the civilized Centuries fall, Paper on paper, Peter on Paul.”
Matthew was a taxman, and money was his calling. Worse, he collected taxes from his own people for the hated Roman invaders. He purchased a licence to do this, and was loathed all round. The followers of Jesus were scandalised when their Lord made friends with him, but “It’s the sick who need the doctor,” he said.
Both the apostle and his Gospel are examples of dying down and renewal. Jesus was tramping from Galilee to Capernaum when “he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the seat of custom, and he said to him ‘Follow me.’” No giving notice to the Romans, no passing on his coveted licence.
Matthew was once thought the most suitable Gospel to be read in church, because there’s nothing muddled about it. It shows us what Jesus taught, what he did, where he came from, and where he is. Christianity is spread out plainly.
It arrives when nature is wilting, when decline and mortality are in the air, when one can actually smell the summer’s rot. But growth feeds decay; so I let it all stand. No full clear-up until winter. Just this rattling of sticks, this mouldering of what was bright. And this sploshing about in muddy ruts.
Friends are anxious. “How’s your track?”
“Beautiful,” I say. Polite mumbles of disbelief.
I plunge along to the soft sound of winter, and the huge murmur of wind in the valley, and its promise of gales and the certainties of the season. Why Matthew? Because somebody had to keep money in its place — and never more so than now.
Seasonal melancholy blends with the sadness of war, says Ronald Blythe
This heresy entered my head when I was a boy, standing by father on what was then Armistice Day, and he not long before this a teenager in the 5th Suffolks at Gallipoli. For some, it was Churchill’s worst error, and the Australians in particular suffered the most from his decision to make war on this front. Its sadness continues to penetrate the final weeks of the year.
Rupert Brooke was in the same Dardanelles-bound convey as father when an insect sting killed him. The ship pulled in to the isle of Skyros, and a band of naval ratings went ashore to dig his grave. His beauty and patriotism romanticised the beginning of the First World War, after which came the machine-gun slaughter of the trenches, poison gas, and the criticism of a very different voice, that of Wilfred Owen.
Thus, for those of my generation, the intense sadness of those now far-off days continues to mingle with the natural melancholy of the countryside, as the farm track disappears beneath a rustling ocean of mainly oak leaves.
I was taught in my youth not to level every seedhead, but to enjoy their black potency as, gaunt and febrile, they scattered next summer’s promise everywhere.
And so, once more, I read the names on the war memorials, one for each village, and a trumpeter sounds the Last Post, and Colonel Easten says: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today,” and somehow this now ancient rite acquires a living force — enough to strengthen it for another 12 months.
The grass must be mown. It grows apace. The guttering of the cat-slide roof has to be cleared out, as must the trench around the farmhouse. Sodden nettle-beds must be scythed, and the hedges trimmed. All this in a wet but warm climate. In East Anglia, snow and ice usually wait until after Christmas, although drifts and Jack Frost windows are becoming things of the past.
I doubt if the seven horses on the hill opposite have known a snowstorm; now and then the white pony kicks up her heels in a kid of skittish recognition of what, for her, must seem like perpetual summer. Walkers reach the lake and turn their maps this way and that, look through binoculars, and trudge on. They peer politely through the hedge at my house, and are both admiring and critical, maybe. For who can tell?
The house stares back, as it has done since Shakespeare’s time. It is named after John Bottengoms, c.1375. But a plaque says John Nash RA. Sometimes I imagine that I hear his little car rattling down the track, full of fishing gear, and easel, and the weekly shopping.
At this autumn moment, however, all is still; the November palette is subdued, and the birds are reduced to a dozen walking seagulls. To think, I tell myself, that you once ran everywhere! To catch the bus, to see an aunt, or for no reason at all. Now, I ask myself: “Should I take a stick?”
Falling oak leaves remind Ronald Blythe of the passage of time
Seasonal visits from kind people are logged in my diary — only I forget to look at it; so I have to pretend to expect them. This is no difficulty. The Gospels arrived from a dry land, and I see the Lord’s dusty feet, and I comprehend that encounter with the lady at the well.
Meanwhile, my oak leaves, like a floating fortune, speed towards the river. I have squelchy feet as I aid it on its journey. The white cat fusses over damp paws. Soon, the fall will be complete — the orchard bare, the track carpeted, the fine horse-chestnuts willed to us by a Victorian parson, gaunt.
The artist John Nash used to appreciate a dead tree here and there, as do I. Meanwhile, mulch is claiming autumn’s flow and creating a kind of hesitant music. Do the badgers listen to it as they hump their way to the bar, as it were, quarrelling and dragging their black and white bodies towards deep water? I hear them as the light fails.
The emigrant birds have long taken off, leaving the stay-at-homes plenty of room to be noisy in.
I have just returned from the Stour estuary. It is a universe of its own, and not at all like the rest of the river. Even the people who live there are a separate race. It was where they trained naval ratings when I was a boy: impossibly spotless youths who climbed terrifyingly tall masts, and who sang carols like angels. A race apart. They could see the Empire.
Voices carry across water. At Aldeburgh, near by, the wonderful Imogen Holst taught Suffolk children how to release their voices in the firmament, as well as over the North Sea, drawing the sound out of them. Her dancing step — she once hoped to be a ballet dancer — destroyed their inhibitions.
So here I was, back from the Stour Estuary, that not-quite-earthy country. I had been to Harkstead to give a talk in St Mary’s, which Nikolaus Pevsner called “a perfect Constable picture. Flint and septaria, mainly C14 . . .”. And, just outside, flowed the Stour, the most celebrated river in British art.
It continues to flow below my house, now and then glinting through the naked trees, quietly for most of the time — unless it meets a mill-race, when it roars at the top of its voice.
The garden demands attention. Cyclamen is in full flower, the corms — which pigs find a treat — lying on top of the soil. My first real country smell as a child was that of our pigsty. It was far from unpleasant. The house was thatched and apt to be full of wintering creatures. The poet John Clare heard them as he made love to his wife in the room below.
I sometimes feel that I must apologise to my old house for its absence of the old hospitality. Not that the white cat has a part in it: her indifference to other residents is a kind of sloth incarnate. She does nothing. She sings “Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”
I was shocked when a visitor felt her, and said: “She’s getting on a bit!” But who isn’t? The year certainly is.
Ronald Blythe is amazed at the variety of night visitors to the farm
UNTIL my friend Patrick Wildgust came down from the north, everything I knew about moths was contained in the Burial Service. My beauty would consume away, like as it were a moth consuming a garment.
When I was a boy, old ladies often smelled of mothballs — and old men of tobacco. Moths were drawn to the flame, and, in a perfect essay by Virginia Woolf, “Death of the Moth”, the poor creature anticipates her own tragic end. Patrick the naturalist, however, will have none of this. On 12 October, a date to be reckoned with, he sets up a moth-trap – or, rather, a light-trap — in my garden, and, early next morning, what do we find? The following roll-call of moths:
Beaded Chestnut, Merveille du Jour, Red-line Quaker, Yellow Underwing, Common Rustic, Rosy Rustic, Setaceous Hebrew Character, November Moth, Feathered Thorn, Sallow, Common Marbled Carpet, Lunar Underwing Shades (just one wing, the other probably consumed by a bat) — and, wait for it, six hornets.
All these creatures here at Bottengoms! Every night? And, until Patrick arrived, invisible to my untrained eye. All I can muster is Robert Browning’s “moth’s first kiss” of Elizabeth Barrett, which goes on: “The bee’s kiss, now! Kiss me. . .” No wonder she fled Wimpole Street with him for Florence.
Kiss me as if you made believe
You were not sure, this eve,
How my face, your flower, had pursed
Its petals up; so, here and there
You brush it.
The white cat owns the wall where the moth-trap displays its amazing catch, purring into moss. Does she sleep, or does she contemplate? I meditate on moths’ life-cycle, cats’ life-cycle, my life-cycle, and how briefly they touch.
Scripture avoids natural history if it can, and, instead of all these marvellous creatures’ witnessing their existence in the dancing light of tents, they are feeding on our clothes — the ones with which we covered our naked selves. Anyway, a whole host of previously unsuspected members of God’s creation have made themselves known to me. And all because of Patrick’s light-trap.
Should you wish to meet these neighbours, or, rather, fellow-sharers of the universe, this is what you do. I have taken it straight out of Paul Waring’s and Martin Townsend’s Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland, which is the Gospel of mothology: a book that will change your life.
“Light trapping exploits the commonly observed tendency of many moths to approach and become disorientated around bright lights. The types of electric lights which emit part of their output as ultra-violet light have been found to be most effective, and two types are favourites among moth-trappers: mercury vapour discharge bulbs, and fluorescent actinic tubes. Traps are designed around these, operating on the lobster-pot principle. The moths rest in the traps unharmed, and can be released again unharmed.”
The grape leaves wither round the moth-trap and come down, floating past the study window — whether with relief or reluctance, it is hard to say. The vine itself must rest until the New Year and the cold has polished its boughs.