Monday, December 17, 2007

An Effect of Benediction


"There is no home-coming like the home-coming into an English house in their windy dusk, and it is best of all when one so comes home from off the sea." Hilaire Belloc


I always find this time of year somewhat melacholy here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Memories come flooding back of the preparation for Christmas many years ago. Having not spent a Christmas with my family for fifteen years I find, as I get older, that I miss the English Christmas more than ever. Of course, the rampant commercialism is just as present as it is here, and England is now a bleakly secular and post-Christian land. But the celebration of Christmas has stayed fairly stable - people tend to have the days from the 25th to the New Year off, the turkey of Christmas Day becomes turkey pie on Boxing Day, turkey sandwiches and, a particular favourite when I was in the Order: turkey curry. People tend to visit one another and, even though they are all stuffed full of Quality Street (a particular candy consumed in vast quantities around Christmastide), the idea, if not the reality, of the Octave of Christmas still exists by the very fact that everyone is, in fact, on holiday. To allow the full level of melancholy to develop, I find that putting on a CD of the St. John's College, Cambridge Choir singing Advent carols, pouring a small (it IS Advent) warming glass of Applejack (poor man's Calvados) achieves the desired effect. Listening to Felix Mendelssohn's 'Ave Maria' sung so magnificently, as only an Anglican choir can, I find myself coincidentally - or not coincidentally at all, as my house guest of last week, the great Blessed George of Park Avenue writes in his new book (available from fine booksellers) - reading the music column of 'The Spectator.' Peter Phillips, who is, I believe, an Anglican, writes approvingly of Pope Benedict's concentration on the musical life of the Church. He makes the important, and over-looked point, that, in the present Holy Father we have the first Pope in many centuries who is a fine musician. With that coincidence dealt with, I return to my ruminating over Christmas past, not in the manner of Mr. Scrooge, more in the manner of Belloc. One of his finest essays, only available if you have an old copy of his 'Selected Essays,' is entitled 'A Remaining Christmas.' He describes a typical English Christmas as it would have been celebrated in his home between the Wars. He describes all the rituals; the meal taken on a table made "while Shakespeare was still living, and when the faith of England still hung in the balance." The children of the village come to receive their gifts, the three Masses of Christmas are said by the priest-guest in the private Chapel and the festivities begin. The Twelve Days of Christmas are kept, with decorations only coming down on Epiphany evening. Belloc continues with his description thus: "This, which I have just described, is not in a novel or in a play. It is real, and goes on as the ordinary habit of living men and women. I fear that set down thus in our terribly changing time it must sound very strange and, perhaps in places, grotesque, but to those who practice it, it is not only sacred, but normal, having in the whole of the complicated affair a sacramental quality and an effect of benediction: not to be despised. Indeed, modern men, who lack such things, lack sustenance, and our fathers who founded all those ritual observances were very wise."
In a "terribly changing time," perhaps what we need most is the "sacramental quality and an effect of benediction" which the ancient rituals of Christmas past encompass, and I, for one, am not surprised the melancholy is so strong at this time of year with the memory of what I once experienced - and maybe will again?

13 comments:

tara said...

Oh sigh, I will pray that your melancholy be turned to joy--and that you will again taste some turkey curry--odd choice of food? Do you have any recipes?

Liz said...

Father Ben, Christmas tends to be a melancholy season for me at this point in my life as well. It is a reminder of pasts Christmases when people now dead were still alive, when the children were small and life seemed full of so many possibilities. This is in the point in Advent when I have to "gear up" and try to overcome these gloomy feelings so that Christmas can be received with joy.

We try here to celebrate in something of the English manner (although don't achieve the English manor, I'm sure). The tree doesn't get decorated before the 23rd at the earliest (we prefer the 24th, but sometimes circumstances force a premature decoration). Since becoming Catholic we've always gone to midnight Mass after a dinner of oyster stew. Before that our church service was earlier in the evening, but the meal was pretty much the same.

We have had for a couple of years either both goose and roast beef or both turkey and roast beef on Christmas Day(I know, crazy, but one child insists this is the English tradition - could you disabuse him of that notion???). Before that we mostly did roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and skipped the bird. Of course we still do the yorkshire pudding. For our entire married life dessert has been flaming plum pudding (which I made very properly on Stir Up Sunday this year). Turkey pie is certainly one of the dishes that gets made out of the leftover turkey. Homemade fruitcake appears later in the afternoon. So while we don't get the whole English tradition in, we certainly make a stab at it.

I hope that someone from England sends you your favorite candy and that some parish family invites you in for Christmas and Boxing Day. We appreciate the sacrifices that you make in order to serve here in the Diocese of Burlington. I truly hope that the sacrifice of an English Christmas gets somewhat softened this year. Perhaps someone in your parish has read Joanna Bogle's books on Christian celebrations and will invite you in to check out their authenticity (HINT to Father Ben's parishoners!!!). And if they haven't made their plum pudding yet, it really isn't too late. The first year I made it I didn't even put it together until Christmas Day.

the owl of the remove said...

Roast Beef is heresy on Christmas Day! Turkey or Goose, anything else is from the evil one.
Fear not for my melancholy, Tara - the English enjoy it.

fr paul harrison said...

The traditions are slowly changing again. An increasing number of people are going out to a pub or hotel for their Christmas Lunch.

AS for me I am being a heretic this year: I am having Roast Beef for Christmas lunch!

the owl of the remove said...

I'll get the straw ready for burning at the stake, Father - not burning the steak. Liz - don't be too impressed by my exile here in the Colonies - I chose it, so I am the only one at fault, if fault there be.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker said...

I miss English Christmas too. We make sure we have Christmas crackers on the table at least.

gemoftheocean said...

Well, this d*mnable darkness this time of the year doesn't exactly help! So help me, if I win the lottery I'm buying a house in Australia, just so I can spend right after Thanksgiving to March 1st there. It's almost 6 a.m. and stil pretty dark, and it's going to be near dark again by 4:45. Stop the madness. No wonder the church celebrates the birth of Jesus now - it's to keep your mind off the dark.

Karen

NicoleR said...

Fr. Ben... we have Harp at least!There is always room at the table for you in Colchester! Merry Christmans

tibotmorfenoo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the owl of the remove said...

I'm actually a fan of the 'boss' - I've even quoted him in a homily - you may even hear it one day! Thanks for the positive thoughts - my melancholy is an Anglo/Irish thing - mixture of the peat bogs and English rain - produces the hybrid monster you are getting to know!

Ttony said...

Good news! Belloc's "Remaining Christmas" was reprinted in Godfrey Smith's "Christmas Reader" - an anthology of "readable out loud" pieces about Christmas published in the mid-80s. It's out of print at present, but I have two copies, both picked up in Hay-on-Wye (the second because I thought I'd lost the first) though one is now lost in the vast pile of boxes.

It inspired a never published post on Chritmas Eve last year when it was overtaken by my daughter.

I read it every year on Christmas Eve.

the owl of the remove said...

I have two copies of Belloc's 'Selected Essays,' one picked up last Summer in Rochester for only Two Pounds (no Pound sign on Colonial computer.)

jackie said...

Father, I am up to my ears in Quality Street (two tins for £9 at Tesco). If I had your address, you could have them willingly!
Happy Christmas, anyway, from Manchester, England.