I graded a paper about Christina Rossetti this weekend, so I’ve been thinking about her poem “A Christmas Carol” and the various ways it’s been set to music, usually under the name “In the Bleak Mid-winter.” Take a minute to read it, and I’ll meet you back here when you’re ready.
So, obviously, we don’t know if Jesus was born in the winter, and even if he was, there probably weren’t copious snowdrifts on the Middle Eastern hills. But Rossetti’s poem doesn’t actually imply that the first stanza, which describes a winter scene, is the setting for the next three stanzas, which describe Jesus’ nativity. The “long ago” of stanza 1 could refer to Rossetti’s childhood when she first learned what Christmas means. (This would explain the childlike tone of the famous final stanza.) In general, I think stanza 1 is best read not as a literal description of the setting of Jesus’ birth but as an impression of the dark (literally and figuratively), seemingly hopeless world into which he was born and in which we still live.
Think about winter. It’s a difficult season for many people simply because of where the earth is positioned in relation to the sun, let alone because of the painful associations that the winter holidays have for many people. I am fortunate enough to have virtually no memories but happy ones of the Christmas season, but I really struggle with winter. I find the cold exhausting and the darkness depressing and disorienting. Of course, winter has a beauty of its own–think of a cardinal against a backdrop of snow or the dark outlines of bare trees at twilight. And winter has a few pinpricks of warmth (Christmas), hope (New Years), and pure fun (the February holidays: the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars). But these glimpses are scant compensation for a grueling three or four months (or longer, depending on where you live) of huddling against the “frosty wind” and facing a seemingly endless night.
When I think about long periods of darkness, the 400-year silence between the last Old Testament prophets and the birth of Jesus comes to mind. Isaiah was prophesying about the breaking of this silence when he wrote these words, which Handel later incorporated into The Messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). We, too, live in a time when we want God to speak up and explain why life is so hard and what he’s going to do about it. But we, unlike those inter-testamental Jewish people, can look both backward at the moment where God came to be with us–Immanuel–and forward at the time when the Prince of Peace will “establish [his kingdom] with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever” (Isaiah 9:7). When he comes to set things right, winter will no longer be bleak.