Josna Rege

166. In the Bleak Midwinter

In 1960s, 2010s, Childhood, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on December 9, 2012 at 10:08 am
Ganapati in the snow, kitchen garden
Ganapati in the snow, kitchen garden

My best Christmas memory ever:  on the front verandah in Hijli, Christmas Day, at age 10 or 11, cutting out paper dolls all by myself, looking out at the pale winter sky above the scrubby forest beyond our bungalow on the outer edge of the campus, and singing  “The First Nowell” at the top of my voice.

We must have opened our stockings (pillow-cases, actually) in the morning, eaten our Christmas meal in the early afternoon, and then had the rest of the day to play at a leisurely pace. After all the anticipation and excitement I was contented and at peace, and there was a limited number of things to do: read our new Tintin book, learn how to walk on my new stilts, or cut out and dress the paper dolls. And of course, sing Christmas carols, every single one I knew.

Looking back now, I realize that those Christmasses of my childhood weren’t unlike the one described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie in their spareness—at least, relative to most Christmasses in the United States or Britain today. We had no television and were exposed to almost no advertising except in the newspaper and The Illustrated Weekly; and in any case, Christmas was not a widely-celebrated holiday in India, so there was no media hype whipping us into a frenzy for weeks in advance. With the exception of books or the bicycle which was the biggest Christmas present of my childhood, almost anything that we asked for, our mother and father had to make themselves. Although Sally and I received more than Laura and Mary’s tin cups, peppermint candy canes, white sugar cakes, and bright new pennies, we children found great joy in things that would now be considered very simple indeed. From early December we took pleasure in the carols we sang at no other time of year and in the arrival of every new card (see Across the Miles), waiting eagerly for Dad to bring the mail home every afternoon. We looked forward to waking up on Christmas morning to see the tree decorated (see Saint Nicholas’ Day) with the elf or sprig of holly on it that had arrived in the parcel from Auntie Angy. We delighted in the tangerines and whole walnuts that somehow made their way into our pillowcases, delicacies that we didn’t see at any other time of year.

As I look back in memory on Christmasses Past, what I miss most are the feelings of peace and wonder that I know my mother, with her own childlike delight in Christmas, made possible as she prepared our home for the season. Now, with no children in the house anymore and nothing but work and missed deadlines as far as the eye can see, I’m finding it  hard to cultivate the Christmas spirit. What I need more than anything is to clear a space for it.

Although I am not an adherent of any one organized religion, I love the Christian season of Advent. I love the quiet advent carols, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, and In the Bleak Midwinter, as they acknowledge the cold and dark, long for the prophecied birth, and prepare to welcome the blessèd Child. As children we had a slightly battered advent calendar that we took out again every year, and every year we anticipated anew the daily opening of each window or door, even though we had opened them all many times before and well knew what we would find in the wooden manger when at last we opened the stable door on the twenty-fifth of December.

It is now December the ninth, with Christmas a little more than two weeks away and less than two weeks before my own precious child’s birthday on the twenty-second. Besides the cleaning and decorating I must obviously undertake, my greater task between now and then is to make room for the spirit, should it grace me with its presence. When we go to the carol service on Christmas Eve, I hope to be able to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem with a quiet expectant stillness and an open heart, holding a small lighted candle to welcome the Prince of Peace:

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
Their great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

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  1. dearest, it is rare to hear somebody speak about this season with such truly “inniglich” emotion. i will not translate, it is one of these words in german. maybe i can say passion of the inner heart. thank you for this, to some through and through secularized post WW 2, post-heimat and post-kitsch insistent german this is such a joyful response to our dark winter days. bine

    • Thank you, bine. I am, of course, of that same generation. But these feelings have been mounting the past few days, and it finally came to me that clearing a space was what I desperately needed to do above all else. Then I realized that that in fact was the inner meaning of Advent. Now I have to do some outer space-clearing in the form of grading papers and sweeping floors; let’s hope that the inner space will somehow open up in the process. xxx J

  2. Ha- I had paper dolls too- some were cut out of the children magazines and then some I made myself. We did not celebrate Christmas on 24th, and I am still not clear how to handle overwhelming frenzy of the holiday I have no historical connection with.

    • I used to love cutting out and dressing paper dolls. It sounds as if you were more creative than I was in actually making them. I know what you mean about the frenzy. I’m trying, so far not very successfully, not to let it take over. And I think I understand about having no connection with what my husband’s family, who are Ukrainian American, call “American” or “regular” Christmas: they traditionally celebrate theirs on January 7th. I lived in Greece as a child and it was the same there as well. Yoga will be the best, I think, for cultivating outer ease and inner quiet during this dark season.

  3. You took the words right out of my mouth, Josna! I know how hard it is to make space of any kind of inner quiet in our lives. And now, with the holidays and everything else ‘screaming’ at us, it’s even more difficult. A yoga practice, even a brief one, makes a huge difference. Last week in my classes we worked on opening up (mostly the hips) to settle down, and the settling really happened. This week we’re focusing on receiving gifts, which also requires opening and being calmly present. The inner quiet helps us to receive what we’re hoping for, what we remember and well as some amazing gifts we never expected.

  4. Karen, meet Marjana (virtually)! Perhaps not so surprising that two yoga teachers commented on this story. I can write about this, but you practice it. High time for me to get up from the computer and do the same! Thank you for your comment and I hope to see you again soon. x J

  5. Dearest friend,
    Your yearning for a quietness and peace is surely universal and this is one of my most favourite carols. I hope you know you are always in my prayers specifically for peace and quiet and strength for all that you are trying to handle in your life. God bless.
    Much love, Marianne

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