One of my favourite Christmas carols is In the Bleak Midwinter. As a hymn it contains none of the celebration of Joy to the World or the confidence of Hark the Herald Angels Sing or even perhaps the cultural popularity of Silent Night. It can, I think—particularly to Holst’s beautiful setting—be best described as mournful, which is an arresting quality when our first thought about Christmas might be that it is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Of course, Christmas is a festival of joy. But especially with the world in its current state, the celebration of Christmas can jar in a life which is so full of challenge and tragedy. For the Christian, what is there to celebrate when the Church in the UK is generally considered to be in decline, and Christians are the most persecuted people of faith in the world, or when our own lives can feel fraught with responsibility, stress, and anxiety?
In the Bleak Midwinter is therefore an appropriate carol with which to reflect on the multiple meanings of Christmas for Christians. The theological point of view might be to say that Easter is a more important festival for Christian belief and practice. But it is Christmas which I think tends to mean more to most Christians. Christmas is full of expectation, of storytelling, memory, and mystery. It is the time of year which best connects Christian faith to the realities of family, home, and community. And, in our giving and receiving of presents, our communal singing of carols, our commitment to the sharing of food and friendship, Christians can embody a way of living which is the kind of defiant declaration of love that is most possible in such a challenging world.
Holst’s setting of In the Bleak Midwinter was first included in The English Hymnal in 1906. This Christmas I can’t help but think of those congregations 100 years ago who sang new music to a beautiful poem, the first Christmas just weeks after the end of a global conflict which had torn apart their families and their communities. As the carol reminds the singer: in the ‘frosty wind’, ‘snow’, and ‘cold, cold winter’, our only response—to that combination of love and loneliness, joy and conflict, fear and hope that Christmas embodies—is to ‘give our heart’ fully to the world as it is and as God calls us to be.
Senior Programme Manager