Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Tales

Near Corbière, 3000 BC

It is dark, and cold, and we walk to the hilltop together. A sharp, biting wind cuts me like a knife. Now is the time, when the year has grown cold, for us to come together, and celebrate the sun return.

We are at the stone table now, overlooking the bay below. Waves glisten, reflecting the moonlight as they break upon the rocks below. The priest is ready, the earthen bowls around the table ablaze with a thick smoky flame, and my father, as an elder of our tribe, places the lamb, feet firmly bound, upon the table.

Last month was the blood month, the time of slaying, when the sheep and lambs are culled for the winter. There is barely enough food for the tribe in these harsh winters, and that month, on the cusp of winter, is the time to kill some of the flock. I have seen these dried, and salted, and kept to sustain us through the worst months to come.

But one lamb is held back, and it is this lamb that the priest will sacrifice today. He will take the sacred knife, and ask the gods for mercy, and that the sun will return again. Then we will feast, in dawn's grey light, and have warmth in our bellies, a token of the ending of the shortening days, and the returning of the light.

Now it is my time, my part as first-born, and I step forward, and chant the words I have been taught by my father, and before him, his father, and so, for many generations in the mists of time, back to the great word that was spoken by the gods themselves.

Dark the night falls,
A canopy over the land
Cold death breaks stone walls
Reaches out her bony hand

Let us here offer her a life
A word and a sacrifice made
Signs of hope, of ending strife
The ransom has been paid

Sunlight is reborn this day
Light that lightens the dark
This is our truth, our way
A kindling of the spark

Then the whole tribe joins in the chant,

Eat in night, long for light
Let it be, we pray it might.

And now the priest steps forward, tall and grey, and there is silence. All our fears are gone, all our hopes risen high, and this will be a time of joy.

1852, La Rocque

The wind is rising, and it is not yet dawn, but we must depart, even if a tempest threatens. The boat is ready, and we are dressed in our oilskins, ready to brave the tidal flow. The rain falls in a torrent, a curtain of water drenches us, but we need the fish.

My wife has mended my nets, and my thoughts turn to her, sitting peacefully beside the fire in our small cottage, knitting steadily to help our livelihood. In a few hours, the farmers will be taking their cows to the fields, and the bell will toll at the new chapel for morning prayer. Let them pray for those in peril on the sea, and those weaving in and out of these treacherous rocks.

Now we are past the witch's rock, and the strange moaning, as the wind whistles through the trees. On our return, the thirteenth fish must be given up to the seas around this point, a sacrifice to the spirits of air and water, that we may have safe passage home.

Christmas approaches, and I think of my own newborn, suckling milk at my wife's breast, unaware of the hardship that is our lot, of the perils that beset a fisherman. Will my son follow in my path, and hear the cry of the lone gull across the sea, the song of the waves upon the rocks, and know the tossing of the boat in life's stormy sea?

On shore, the beacon's light is lit to guide us home, even through the gales, even when our sight is lost in spray and storm, so that we might come to a safe harbour once again, and thank God for safe haven and warm hearth. Landfall is a time of joy, and on Christmas we shall leave our nets, and give thanks to the Lord who called fishermen to follow him.

Around the Middle of the 20th Century, The Institute
It does no good to hide in a corner weeping, but I can't help it. Today was a day of Christmas cheer, and visitors came to see us, and the Warden and his assistants were beaming, full of false smiles, showing how kind they were to us. But after the last visitors left, the smiles faded as fast as night fell, and all the freedom, the laxity was gone, and woe betide any boy who did not follow their iron rule of discipline.

But we are boys, and we cannot behave like mindless machines. Of course we have our fun, we play games, we are mischievous on occasion, because we forget. The mind blots out the pain, the beatings, and for some, much worse. They are the ones taken away to the other part of the building, and we hear the odd cries, even from as far as that, and they return, tight lipped, biting back the tears, and mute, shocked into silence by whatever brutality has been inflicted on them. I am lucky. I only got a flogging for cheeking the assistants. That is getting off lightly. Some return with scars, and others with scarring inside, deep wounds that do not heal easily, if at all. I fear their fate, and I try to be good, but I am only a small boy, and it is very hard to do so all the time. Sometimes one wants to have fun, to laugh, to joke and play freely. I forget, and take my punishment.

This is the darkest night, the shortest day, but for many here, midnight never ends, and they that love the darkness ply their cruel deeds. I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was a stranger, and I was imprisoned in this institute, and where were the visitors then? When did they see me hungry and feed me, thirsty and give me drink, naked and cloth me, a stranger and welcomed me, and imprisoned and set free? I pray that one day my tale will be told, and the truth will blaze forth like the light of the world, and justice will again be found in the courts, and all righteous people will support it.

1943, A Hidden Room in a House, St Helier

It is time, the special time of year, and more than ever, I pray for light. The curfew is in place, and it is a dark time that we live in. I cannot even go out by light, because the shadow of a great evil has fallen upon this Island. And yet I am kept safe by those who keep alive a flame of hope, who hide me at great cost to themselves, and go without to feed me; even in their hardship, they give to those in greater need.

I dream of the beach, and the sun, and the waves upon the shore, of the laughter of children, the holidaymakers lazing their days away, sprawled out, and enjoying the balmy sun. The fresh breeze, the cool of the water on a hot day as I splashed around with my friends, such, such were the joys, but now just memories, thoughts to hold on to, that I may one day be free again to walk down to the coast, and look across the bay to the yachts, fleet in the summer breezes as they glide across the blue water. Now, I am told the beaches are cold, forbidding places, full of mines and barbed wire, and only fisherman are permitted to go out upon the sea, while the ever seeing, watchful eye of the gunner looks over his domain.

I take out my single candle, saved each year, lit only for a few precious minutes each day, and I take the makeshift tinder box, and strike the flint upon the firesteel. The sparks catch on the charcloth, which glows warmly, and I ignite the wooden splint, and take light the candle from its taper, taking care to extinguish the box for days to come.

This is my celebration of the kindling of the lights, my festival of lights, my Hanukkah. And I softly sing the hymn Ma'oz Tzur, which tells of divine salvation, and events of persecution of our peoples, and I remember how Maccabees fought so all of us could be free, and pray that others will fight the cause of justice now, and free us from this oppression, in which this Island is occupied. And in a low voice, I sing the psalms for here our people have known of sorrows and joys, and the generations past speak to us this day. And now I blow out the candle, and the first day has passed, and I wish the light of the Lord will come again, with justice flowing like a river, to bring peace upon this blighted earth.

2014, A Church on Christmas Eve

I drink to forget, and I've probably drunk too much this night. And as I walk home through the rain, dripping wet, somewhat unsteady on my feet, I hear the peal of bells, the Christmas bells, bringing memories of times past, of childhood hopes, of the excitement of gifts, the waiting expectantly.

Somehow I make my way into the Church, I don't know why, but it is Christmas, and at this time of the year, I want to be among other people, to share that warm glow, to sing carols. In the cold light of day, it may seem like nonsense, but on this night, this special night, there is a joy.

Time for the lost sheep to come back to the fold, even if for a few hours, and hear once more the Christmas story, of the child born this day who still gives a spark of hope, even now, even to someone drunk like me. I settle in a pew, and I look at all the bright and shining faces, all the happiness, and I am glad. Wouldn't it be so bleak if it was always winter and never Christmas?

And reverently, I stumble very carefully, very slowly forward in procession, and take that bread and wine. And tomorrow it will be the soup kitchens for cheer. Eating and drinking is an act of reverence, this day, not what you believe, and I don't know what I believe, but I am happy to eat at this table, even if I am unworthy.

And I leave to the glad cries of "Happy Christmas", returning to the dark streets, not quite so dark now. The rain has stopped, and I have glimpsed that everlasting Light, just briefly, and known how the hopes and fears of all the years have been met there tonight.

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