New Year, New Plans

Do you make New Year resolutions? As a (much) younger person I was a fan of the idea of resolving to do better in some specific way in all the months that stretched ahead of me in the coming year. Now I realise that those months contract more than stretch, and I’m inclined to count the positives each day brings rather than aim for more ambitious long-term goals.

A Christmas-New Year tale from the Middle Ages that puts the short-term positives vs the long-term ambition in interesting juxtaposition is an Arthurian story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

The story begins in Arthur’s court of Camelot where he and his knights are enjoying frivolous New Year games and gift-giving. The carefree atmosphere is shattered by the arrival of an unknown giant of a knight who is not only dressed all in green but also has skin of a green hue. Even his horse is green. Now, of course, in the broadest interpretation of this story opening, the ‘green knight’ represents the intrusion of the natural world (and the ‘old religions’) into a Christian setting but there are more important lessons in this story.

Once the shock of his entrance into the King’s court has subsided, the Green Knight proffers an axe and asks for a volunteer to cut off his head. The great King Arthur is shown to be a bit of a coward, as are many of his other knights as it is only young Sir Gawain who steps up to the challenge and removes the Green Knight’s head cleanly in one blow. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Green Knight bends down to pick up his own severed head and, propping it under his arm, continues to speak to the assembly. He reminds them that since “one good turn deserves another”, Sir Gawain is expected to seek him out at the same time next year so that he may remove Sir Gawain’s head.

The laws of chivalry required Sir Gawain to honour the request and so, in the biting winter of the following Christmas-New Year period, Gawain sets off on his quest.  His adventures en route to his destiny are too lengthy to describe here but what is really interesting about the fabulous Gawain is that, despite his honour and fortitude, he does eventually accept a talisman – a waist cord of green silk – that, while not allowing him to avoid his fate, will protect him from death. With such help, he still faces the Green Knight, still endures the strike of the axe, but his life is spared. Nevertheless, he must return (alive) to Arthur’s court with an obvious and an indelible scar on his neck. It is a bodily reminder of his human frailty. In addition, he decides to emphasise his lack of total courage by wearing the green cord as another sign of his imperfection. In support of his honesty, all the other Arthurian knights take to wearing green silk belts too.

In this New Year as we make all kinds of resolutions to be better than last year, I think that Gawain and the knights can teach us a valuable lesson about doing our best, honouring our commitments, acting with courage and behaving with dignity. But they can also remind us to accept that, despite our best intentions, we are only human; and our friends and family will love us, scars and all.

Christmas Rush: Mind the Gap

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There is a line from the TV series Seinfeld that often comes into my head when I’m getting ready for a family celebration or holiday, and especially for the great event of Christmas. The Seinfeld character quotes his father as observing that “Sometimes even a picnic’s no picnic”. How true that observation seems as, in the frantic rush to prepare for Christmas, the joyous underpinning of the season is obscured by the mad frenzy of parties, shopping and cooking. It is not that we intentionally lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. In fact, I think it is the opposite: we want to honour Christmas, to celebrate it with all the joy that it deserves. As in so many things we undertake, we intend to do well. It is into this gap between trying and achieving, between intention and attainment, between journeying and arriving that we, as fallible, ‘unfinished’ humans fall. We can strive for perfection but we cannot reach it. The stories of some the early hermits often make me think of this yawning gap between intention and achievement.

St Antony is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Monasticism’. The title is unlikely to be an accurate one but there is no doubt that Antony’s life story, written by St Athanasius of Alexandria between 356 and 362 AD, helped to establish Antony’s renown as a holy man whose life modelled a particular approach to a life dedicated to God.  Athanasius tells us that Antony was born in c251AD in Egypt (at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna) to prosperous, Christian parents.  At about thirty-five years of age, Antony decided to take up an ascetic life of prayer and absolute solitude but things did not go exactly to plan. As Antony’s dedication became known, more and more people approached him for help and healing; so many people, in fact, that Anthony’s plans for a solitary life became virtually impossible to sustain.  Although maintaining his customary discipline and austerities, he frequently had to mingle with, and attend to, a growing number of followers. As Scott Cairns, in his Foreword to Robert C. Gregg’s translation of The Life of Antony observes, “In the person of Saint Antony we are able to witness … a life that is, decidedly, a life along the way, a life led by one who understood that way to be a never-ending one, a manner of progress without conclusion”.

Symeon the Stylite faced a similar dilemma but reacted more dramatically. Symeon was born around 390 in Sission, northern Syria. He apparently decided on a life dedicated to God when he was very young and he further determined that this dedication would be manifested by great austerity and acts of mortification. In those days, the trend toward a solitary life of severe self-denial was gaining in popularity. To our modern sensibilities it may seem strange but these early hermits were regarded with awe by their faithful counterparts who, in an effort to ‘gain by association’ some of the (perceived) holiness of the solitaries, would follow them at a distance, even into the more remote areas where the hermits ventured for solitude.

This social practice resulted in a rather bizarre situation in which hermits, attempting to live a solitary life, came under the watchful gaze of large groups of people who would approach the hermits whenever possible for prayers, healings and advice. It is said that Symeon, unable to ‘horizontally’ escape the attention of his ever-increasing band of followers, finally took a ‘vertical’ escape route, climbing many metres up a pillar to live atop its meagre platform for thirty years or more.

Sometimes at Christmas, we too might feel like escaping ‘up a pole’ as Symeon did but it may be more practical for us to take Antony’s lead and regard our lives and endeavours as ‘a life along the way’, towards peace and kindness. And, even if Christmas is not always a ‘picnic’, we might be better off if we abandon any escape plans and simply put ourselves squarely amongst the mad, happy throng of our fellow humans, all rushing around with good intentions – and, sometimes, slipping through the unavoidable gaps.

A ‘rush’ of Christmas happiness to all.

The Truth About Carol

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The word ‘carol’ comes from French and Anglo-Norman and originally referred to a ‘round dance with singing’. This soon expanded to refer to groups of people dancing in a circle and singing happily together; and with the ‘circle’ often moving through a town or public space. From this origin it’s easy to see that a large part of the carol’s appeal – right to the present day – is that it brings people together.

The popular Christmas carol Silent Night is so well known and loved that it seems like it must have been around for a very long time. In fact the lyrics were written as recently as 1816 by Joseph Mohr, and the melody composed two years later by fellow-Austrian Franz Xavier Gruber. But the history of Christmas carols in general is certainly much older. In the 10th-12th century, European monks began to give a particular form to earlier, rather sombre, Christian hymns, by introducing the idea of a succession of verses, each with different lyrics but matching syllabic counts, interspersed with a recurring chorus or refrain. The form was catchy and its use was not restricted to Christmas time but lent itself to songs for any number of feast days (that is, ‘holidays’ from the words ‘holy days’). In England, the first reference to the “caroles of Cristemas” seems to be in the work of the chaplain, John Awdlay, in 1426.

Another carol that many think is a medieval composition is Good King Wencelas but, in fact, it was composed as (relatively) recently as 1853 by John Mason Neale. Its ‘medieval flavour’ however comes about, I suggest, for two reasons:

  1. Its words are inspired by the medieval legend of the life of St Wencelas (907-935), a Bohemian nobleman who braved freezing winter conditions to deliver alms to the poor
  2. Its melody is taken from a 13th century seasonal (spring) carol

Similarly, The Twelve Days of Christmaspartridge, with its strange list of ‘gifts’, evokes the medieval world. Again, this carol is more recent, its words having been first published in England in 1780; but the idea of such a list can be found in the provincial songs of many earlier compositions. Additionally, “a partridge in a pear tree” does have very close links with the allegorical/moral entries in medieval bestiaries. (I’ve written about bestiaries in another post but, for those who don’t know, the medieval bestiary is a type of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast). There, the partridge is described as a deceitful bird because of its practice of stealing the eggs from the nest of other birds, and of then hatching them. This was never to the partridge’s advantage, however, as, once hatched, the baby birds would recognise the call of their true mother and would fly to her. The associated allegorical meaning was that the partridge stood for the Devil and his stealing of souls (into sin) but, eventually, when the sinners recognised God as their true creator, they would repent, leaving the Devil empty-handed.

Not that any of these weightier meanings dampened the enthusiasm for enjoyment of our medieval forebears at Christmas. They continued to ‘wassail’ happily. And that’s as it should be, as ‘wassail’ comes from the Middle English wæs hæll meaning ‘be in [good] health.

Good health and happy wassailing and carol singing to you all!