This Most Modest of Seasons

Christmas comes differently to the country.

Threaded around and through twin pieces of rusted rebar that serve as mailbox supports, the shabbiness of the plastic pine garland is apparent only to the mail carrier, or to the woman who trudges in slippers up the lane from her house, hoping against hope to find greetings in her box.  From the road the garland appears perfect, full and fresh.  From a distance, even plastic communicates the woman’s message: in this house, we celebrate. We mark the season. We share our joy with you, the passer-by.

Farther down the road,  a wreath made of vines adorns a gate closed across a cattle guard.  Its ribbon flutters in the wind, attracting attention, drawing the eye through the gate and into a pasture.  There’s a brush pile and some uncleared mesquite. A few trees, pushed over and left to die, wait to be added to the pile.  Despite the cattle guard, no livestock roam. There’s no stock tank, no house or pond – not even a pile of rusted, broken-down machinery.  Only a despondent wind sighs through the fence and across the field.

With no house in sight the wreath seems misplaced until the eye travels on to the horizon, discovering a single, spreading oak hung with drops of red, silver and gold.  Clearly the ornaments are the size of basketballs or larger, to be seen at such a distance.  It must have required a team of youngsters to get them into the tree. Swinging in the breeze, beautiful in their simplicity and striking in their isolation, they whisper their poignant reminder: in this emptiness, in this fading light and behind this unworked land, there is human presence.  

At night the country shines.  As darkness overcomes the fields and hedgerows, a star flickers into life atop a windmill, suggesting a tank and an unseen herd.  Curves of lighted icicles mark the end of lanes.  A fire flickers in the distance.  Where homes cling more closely to the frail netting of roadways, the shimmer of tree lights glints an ornament or two into existence.  In yards, occasional twinkling nets flung over bushes light a path for latecomers.

To eyes accustomed to the insistent glow of cities,  the lights seem frail and faint.   When city folk arrive to celebrate with country friends, their expectations of riotous color and overwhelming light makes the singular star, the barely visible twinkle, seem impoverished and insignificant.  Trained over the years to equate Christmas with lavish celebration, obsessive consumption and elegant gluttony, they find the modesty of a single star embarassing. 

Christmas, it seems, has become the season of extravagance. Its most common complaint often sounds suspiciously like boasting – there simply is too much to accomplish, too many obligations, far too many demands. Ironically, that same extravagance also makes it the season of not enough: not enough money, not enough time or energy and increasingly little good will.   Constrained by the limits of age, by economic loss or the demands of a complicated daily life, far too many hear the casual question – “Are you ready for Christmas?” – as an accusation, an occasion for discomfort, anxiety or guilt.   Have we sent enough cards? Strung enough lights? Purchased enough gifts?  Will there be time enough for the baking, the cleaning, the entertaining?  Will our efforts be approved by those around us, or will we, too, be judged impoverished and insignificant? 

The Church always has had an answer for the extravagance and angst of our season – a nearly forgotten and oft-dismissed answer to be sure, but an answer nonetheless.  Underneath the roiling surface of our preparations lies a great truth: this is not the Christmas season. In the Christian tradition, Christmas begins December 25, with the Christ Mass, the Feast of the Nativity. It continues on for a traditional twelve days, finally culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

These days leading up to Christmas, these days we love to fill with light and chatter and exhaustion, make up the forgotten season of Advent. It is a modest season, not meant for hyperactivity or extravagance.  This time is meant for emptying, lying fallow, waiting.  This is our time to embrace the darkness in which stars still shine, to shiver in a cold destined to be filled with the warmth of presence, to acknowledge human limits in the face of unutterable and infinite longings.  Simple and unadorned, austere, barely more than ordinary, Advent grants one of the rarest of gifts – celebration on a human scale. 

One of most beautiful tributes to the truths of Advent and perhaps the most modest of all Christmas songs was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965).  Published as Carol of Advent in Part 3 of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), People, Look East is set to BESANÇON, an ancient carol which first appeared in Christmas Carols New and Old, 1871, as the setting for Shepherds, Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.

Farjeon, a native of London and a devout Catholic, is best remembered for her poem Morning Has Broken, often sung as a church hymn and popularized by Cat Stevens (now, Yusuf Islam).  A prolific writer of children’s books and Hans Christian Andersen award-winner  for The Little Bookroom, her poetry is remarkably plain, almost mundane, and yet perfectly suited for musical settings.

One line in People, Look East always has seemed to me especially touching.  Make your house fair as you are able, says Farjeon. If it lies within your means, trim the hearth with a candle or two. Set the table with your best dishes, and the best cloth you can find.  Put up a tree if you will, or twine a bit of garland around a fence or mailbox.  But don’t frustrate yourself trying to outdo the neighbors’ lighting.  Don’t  try to fill a heart’s void with gifts.  Don’t exhaust yourself in kitchen or malls, or try to replicate a past that never was.

Instead, prepare as you are able, and then prepare again to celebrate as the world herself celebrates – guarding an empty nest, walking the fallow field, keeping watch under darkened skies for the star that flickers into life.  In the midst of the world’s extravagant preparations, take time to raise your eyes and look to the horizon, lest you miss the most modest of comings.

 

“People, Look East” sung by The Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral ~ Click to play
 

People, Look East

People, look east, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the guest, is on the way.
Furrows, be glad, though earth is bare
One more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the bird, is on the way.
Stars, keep a watch when night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim.
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together,
People, look east and sing today
Love, the star, is on the way.
Angels, announce to man and beast
Him who cometh from the east.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

 

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.  Special thanks to Daniel Lipinski for permission to use the last photo in this series. Daniel’s other photos, chronicling life on his Montana ranch, can be found here.

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I actually have a tear in my eye as I write this, Linda, because this is perhaps my first Christmas, since I don’t know when, to be “modest” and totally non-extravagant.

    We bought a small live Christmas tree at our outdoor market last Saturday and will decorate it simply tonight (my own decorations from America still have not arrived). Then we’ll turn out all other lights except the tree’s and will just be quiet…and hold each other. There’s nothing more my Soul needs than that. It will be more than enough! Thanks for the reminder.

    Ginnie,

    And I noticed another modest change this morning – a new email address. Step by step, into the future and a new life.

    My most memorable Christmas celebrations always have been the most modest – almost always because of being in a “new” place, or traveling. Even now I find myself reducing and cutting back – two kinds of cookies instead of six, simpler decorations, small dinners rather than large parties. With a shift to online shopping, and a goal of patronizing locally-owned companies and artisans, I’ve even managed to avoid malls and box stores this year.
    It’s a wonderful way to live through the season.

    I’ll think of you decorating your tree this afternoon – evening for you. What a wonderful celebration!

    Linda

  2. Linda, I love the simplicity of your story and the beauty of ‘simplicity’ as a concept.

    I had no idea that ‘Morning Has Broken’ is actually a poem, I always thought that it was more or less a religious song. It is one of my favorite songs because it praises the beauty and the simplicity of nature and her Creator. No gift, no matter how expensive or embellished, can compare to the simple gift of nature and faith.

    Your story touches the part of my heart that craves simplicity and beauty.

    Maria,

    The Christmas story itself is pure simplicity and beauty: a creator, in love, decides to reveal himself to his creation by joining it. Now, since it’s a story, it got embellished pretty quickly with a few things we find hard to grasp – angels, talking animals, traveling stars, three guys who actually asked directions while they traveled…. But it’s a wonderful story, containing wonderful truths.

    Farjeon is a hidden treasure herself. I’ve always loved both songs but never had explored the source of the lyrics. I’m glad I did. And I’d forgotten about Cat Steven’s conversion. I chose one of the Islamic versions of the song precisely because it works so well in that faith context, as well.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the read. Best wishes for a simple and beautiful celebration.

    Linda

  3. Linda,

    This has been a difficult year for so many. The extravagances of Christmases past seem gauche and out of place this year. I feel a collective sigh of relief out there.

    There’s a we’ve-had-enough mentality among many who are exhausted by the compulsive spending, impulsive gifting, and repulsive waste. I know there are still huge numbers who just can’t buy enough junk, but I hope there’s a revolt afoot. Ha!

    As always, Linda, you have your finger on the pulse of what many of us are thinking.

    Bella

    Bella,

    I’m not at all opposed to gift-giving at Christmas, for a variety of reasons. But I am heartily sick of the “save the economy by buying” mentality that’s pushed on us beginning in November October September. There’s not a lick of difference between the casket salesman who says, “You mean you don’t love your Mama enough to give her this $10,000 model?” and the advertising gurus who proclaim diamonds the best expression of love at Christmas.

    As one of my favorite poems says of gifts, they help the season stay. But burying the season beneath piles of compulsiveness and impulsivity – that is repulsive.

    Thank goodness there are ways to escape.

    Linda

  4. I needed to read this today. I’m part of the “never enough” group. And this year, I came up against a wall, sending email to my family and friends away saying “No Christmas gifts — hopefully, Happy New Year ones, maybe Epiphany presents.”

    Haven’t done a card. Hope to bake at least something today but who knows. I’ve spent a good deal of time rethinking things this year, because when you’re ill you don’t always have options. And sometimes, that’s a good thing. This is another eloquent, well-timed and beautifully written post — one to remember.

    jeanie,

    I used to be part of that “never enough” group. The truth is that I was imitating my mother’s preparations for Christmas, forgetting she was making cookies and candy, decorating the house within an inch of its life, throwing parties and sending hundreds of cards as a stay-at-home mom. She and her friends planned Christmas like a military campaign (a WWII campaign, I might add – they probably could give some advice to today’s generals). They were making lists and doing their shopping in July, for heaven’s sake. It was a different world.

    None of that was wrong, but as it became the standard, it easily enough could make those who faced limits – the poor, the elderly, the displaced and homeless, the ill or grieving – feel nothing but guilt and unease. Even the churches bought into it, competing with one another to produce ever-bigger Christmas “programs” that felt straight from Broadway. More and more, they turned from Advent to compete with society’s celebrations. I refuse to do so.

    I’ll be doing my cards this weekend. If they arrive after the 25th, they’re still arriving during the Christmas season. I’ll be mailing parcels on Monday. They’ll arrive during the Christmas season, too. I’m doing a lot more baking and decorating, because of my mom – she’s healthy and happy and eager to celebrate because her sister will be with us – but I’m baking the specialties she remembers and talks about. The fact that she’s 91 and living in her own home for the holiday is reason enough to celebrate.

    But the compulsiveness that Bella spoke of is gone. We’ll do what we do, and that will be enough.

    Linda

  5. Beautiful photos.

    This is what I feel in my heart as I drive home from work and see all the blazing lights. I want a quiet season.

    One of our best Christmases (forgive me if I’ve told you this before) was when we celebrated at my family’s cottage with Don’s family. We had no tree and suddenly decided we wanted one. So a couple of us went into the grocery store in town, found a fake tree on sale in a box for $7.99, went back to the cottage and set it up. We looked for objects around the cottage for ornaments, including incomplete decks of cards. Hearts and diamonds, especially jacks, queens and kings, make very nice tree ornaments – hole punched and beribboned. Of course foil shaped into angels or bells, paper cut for garlands, popcorn strung. My mother-in-law said it was the best Christmas tree she’d ever seen.

    It’s lovely picturing my sister in Europe, enjoying the advent of life with her love at last, after so much labor this year.

    Snow falls, quiet days of vacation ahead, no one at our house this year – Peter in Hawaii, Lesley & Brian in NYC, in-laws in Colorado – just the two of us, the cat, the birds, the chickens and the meadow, spruces, sumac, goldenrod, and quiet snow. I miss our kids, but I couldn’t ask for more.

    Ruth,

    I love imagining your tree. You must have had such fun decorating it, and admiring your handiwork! More often than we acknowledge, it’s the accidental and improbable that make a holiday. Besides, you always can eat the popcorn strings!

    I have my own little tree from the cabin that’s dressed every year with mementos of my travels through the natural world – starfish and arrowheads, fossilized whelks, bits of shattered geode. A rock with a perfect hole through it tops the tree – Texas hill country limestone. Sometimes it even has acorns! It’s a quiet tree – no tinsel, or lights or sparkle – and that’s part of the reason I enjoy it so.

    I think many of us want a quiet season this year. And a celebration without all of the family, all of the preparation and work, often leaves room for the cat, the birds and the meadow in a way otherwise impossible. I’m thrilled we’ll be with family this year – my mother’s sister is coming. And we’ll celebrate and laugh and enjoy – but once they have gone, there will be different enjoyments waiting.

    Linda

  6. I love that title: The most modest of seasons. I don’t know when Christmas began as so extravagant and material-based, considering the first Christmas was the most lowly. I admire the photos too. Thanks for the history and the lyrics, which point to the essence of the season.

    Some years ago I’ve made a ‘pact’ with my in-laws that we will not exchange gifts… except for the Grannies. If we so wish, we can donate whatever amount we’re going to spend to our favorite charity. So Christmas isn’t that hectic in our family. Today my college son comes home from Ontario, that’s my Christmas gift.

    Thanks for the lovely post, Linda… text, visuals, and all.

    Arti,

    We always do exchange gifts, even if they are just “small”. It’s my mother’s firm conviction that everyone needs something to unwrap – and she loves a stocking. It doesn’t need to be much – some candies, a new lipstick, a bookmark or set of nail files will do the trick. It’s just the pleasure of surprise and sharing that she longs for. This year, with our “visiting angel” to take her out, she’ll be able to buy me a little something – and it won’t make one bit of difference what it is.

    What strikes me is that, regardless of our circumstances, the celebration is the same. Your son will be home, Ruth’s son and daughter won’t. We’ll have family with us this year, last year we didn’t. Some decorate, some don’t. Some send cards, others telephone or email. But no matter the form our celebration takes, the reason is the same.

    And Merry Christmas is the appropriate greeting!

    Linda

  7. Your found objects tree sounds wonderful, I love it.

    It’s all in the mind and heart. If we are in control of what it is we want, our satisfaction level shoots way up. For over twenty years we felt compelled to go to someone’s house in the family (Don’s) and spend the night, waking up at their place Christmas morning. Ten years ago or so, we put our foot down decided we wanted to wake up at home, just the four of us, Christmas morning. We felt renewed, released and free! And we were able to enjoy each other in the quietness the way we wanted. Then choose another day for celebrating with the larger family.

    Ruth,

    I’ve faced that same situation a couple of times – once, regarding a single Thanksgiving celebration, and once regarding something so “simple” as the time for opening Christmas presents. The solution to the Thanksgiving connundrum was a trip to Chicago and dinner at a Greek restaurant. The “when do we open our gifts” argument was more complicated, but it got worked out by life itself. I don’t think anyone was unhappy to get their traditions back ;-)

    Linda

  8. Ah, wonderful…..

    My cards will be going out this week, as well. They will arrive during the Christmas season, not before. Partly because I can never seem to get myself organized and done beforehand, like so many people do. And partly because of my Mama.

    Having been raised as High Church Episcopalian, she was a staunch Advent/12 Days of Christmas believer. I recall how she’d dig in her heels about taking down the Christmas tree at New Years, like Dad wanted. It went up a week before Christmas and always had to stay up through 12th Night.

    I cut way back on the gift giving 15 years or more ago. At the time, it was because of some temporary financial difficulties. I kept it that way because I realized how stressed and resentful I had become at other’s expectations of what I should do for them. That’s not what Christmas is all about.

    My decorations are simple. A couple of little poinsettas. A wreath on the door. A few Christmas-y knick knacks set about. Cards taped to the dining room archway. A battery operated candle in the front window. I do have a tree and decorations in the attic but don’t really have the room to set it up. One year later on, perhaps.

    Bug,

    I was raised Methodist myself, and we never paid attention to Advent. We heard the word, of course, but the season before Christmas was the season of preparing for Christmas, and that preparation began the day after Thanksgiving. Period.

    When I discovered there were other traditions in the world, Advent seemed intriguing at first, and then comfortable. It’s not an excuse to slack or procrastinate, but a word of permission to take time to prepare in a different kind of way. I do enjoy it, even if most of my friends get their cards after December 25. As your Mama knew, there are 12 days of Christmas!

    I’d completely forgotten cards taped to the arch between the living and dining rooms. We had that arch, and so did my grandparents’ home – and that’s exactly where the cards went. I’ve got my little looks-like-Texas-hill-country-cedar tree, a couple of artificial poinsettias (because of Dixie Rose) and my collection of oil lamps have fresh fuel and new or newly trimmed wicks. My favorite decoration is to light all of the lamps, even the miniatures – it’s a lovely light that shines in the darkness.

    Linda

  9. Ahh… every Christmas, a new beginning. Being quite fond of bright shiny objects, I love to decorate in excess when the mood hits me. My favorite year was when I discovered in a business district a whole dumpster full of used only once Christmas decorations.
    They filled the entire back of a van.
    My apartment was truly over-the-top blinking,gleaming Holiday Excess. Tacky. You betcha! Fun, Oh yeah!
    I have never topped that one.

    This year is a simple Christmas. I made some cookies, decorated in under 10 minutes and bought a Honey Baked Ham for something special to eat before work Christmas day.

    My Christmas came earlier this year when I flew to Minnesota to see all my elderly relatives. It was one of the greatest gifts because it was the one where I finally understood. Peace to you and yours this season.

    Nanette,

    Your van full of decorating possibilities points straight to another truth, of course – there is no “right” way to approach the holidays. There are different ways, and from year to year, what feels “right” will change. Just the other night I was looking at the palm trees outside and thinking, “Hmmmm…. maybe next year…” But after years of outside lights, I came to the point of enjoying inside lights more – and looking out the windows into the darkness. Maybe it’s just a southerner’s way of trying to replicate the coziness of being snowed in.

    I do understand about that trip. This year we’re hosting rather than traveling, but we all understand how blessed we are even to have the chance to be together for one more year.

    Linda

  10. Linda –

    Beautifully done! I’ve truly scaled back on both my decorating and gift giving…and my two favorite Christmases (still) are the two we spent in Germany. That first year my husband cut a Christmas tree out of paper, and we had soda crackers and Dr. Pepper for dinner…so the next year, when we had our own apartment, we went hog wild – had a tree (with lights – but outdoor lights were banned), ham, and presents!

    Of course the grandsons have changed all that again….but those two years were and still are special. I’m posting a picture in your WU blog because I don’t know how to here…just a play on the lights!

    Happy Holidays to you and your mom and kitties!

    Karen

    Karen,

    It took a couple of looks before I got the joke – “ditto”, indeed! It’s been interesting to see how few lights are around this year. Last night I noticed that even the lighthouse I see out my window, which was lighted up after Ike, is dark this year. I suppose the costs of electricity have something to do with it, but there may be other, deeper reasons. I know far too many people who are in a “dark” mood and just weren’t ready to decorate.

    On a more cheerful note, I’ve had a couple of those soda-cracker Christmas celebrations myself, and they are memorable. When Dolly Parton sang about a “hard candy Christmas”, she was describing an experience lots of folks have had. My own mom talks about the years that finding some nuts, an apple and an orange in a stocking was a big deal. If there was hard candy too, it was special, for sure!

    Enjoy your celebration this year – no snow for you, but plenty of family and love!

    Linda


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