Christmas Eve: A day for a cheery fire, a comfy chair and a good book to read

In his weekly column Michael Pattwell talks about traditions of Christmas Eve in his household
Christmas Eve: A day for a cheery fire, a comfy chair and a good book to read

“ I have always enjoyed a cheery fire in the grate, a comfortable chair and something pleasant to read,” says Michael Pattwell. Picture: Stock

DESPITE my less than positive approach to Christmas last week, I’m not going to downplay the good feelings the majority of people have on this day, Christmas Eve.

It is a day for cosy, family time and I bet that in most houses there are traditional things being done that have been the practice in families since time began. In my case, once all the chores in preparation for the festivities are done, one of the things I have always enjoyed is a cheery fire in the grate, a comfortable chair and something pleasant to read.

Some people are into poetry and even though some might claim to have little interest in the art I would bet that hanging around in the back of the mind are a few pleasant lines. Perhaps, as in most cases, learned at school or maybe picked up along the way.

I think the most remembered lines are usually linked to nature. Who, for instance, having once heard or read Gerard Manley Hopkins lines,

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

can ever forget them? I think, perhaps, the whole of the first stanza from SPRING - simply and aptly named - is worth repeating:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush

With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

I said “aptly” because having now passed mid-winter day we are well on track to reach that most beautiful of seasons with its lengthening days beckoning us towards new growth, hope, positivity and sunshine.

Mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) and most people will say The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or, maybe, Kubla Khan but there was, of course, much more to Coleridge than that. As well as being a famous poet he was a literary critic, philosopher and theologian. A founder, with his close friend Wordsworth, of the Romantic Movement and one of The Lake Poets, he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture. Coleridge coined many familiar words and phrases, including “suspension of disbelief”.

Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression and it has been suggested that he had what is now called bipolar disorder, which had not been defined during his lifetime. He was physically unhealthy too, thought to stem from childhood illnesses. He was treated for these conditions with laudanum and this fostered a lifelong opium addiction.

In his much-acclaimed poem, Frost at Midnight, the poet discusses his childhood experience in a negative manner and emphasises the need to be raised in the countryside. The poem expresses hope that Coleridge’s son, Hartley, would be able to experience a childhood that his father could not and become a true “child of nature”.

Critics claim his view of nature within the poem has a strong Christian element in that Coleridge believed that nature represents a physical presence of God’s word and that the poem is steeped in Coleridge’s understanding of Neopolitanism (a Platonic doctrine and Eastern mysticism, with later influences from Christianity. It holds that all existence consists of emanations from the One with whom the soul may be reunited.) The last ten lines of the poem are particularly beautiful:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast, Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

I was reminded about Coleridge and his references to nature recently when I came across his beautiful poem, Work Without Hope, particularly the first stanza

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair— The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing— And Winter, slumbering in the open air, Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring! And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing, Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

I remember reading somewhere once that Coleridge rewrote some of Wordsworth’s poems before they were released for publication. I cannot say whether there is truth in it but each time I read a Wordsworth poem I cannot help wondering what, if anything, Coleridge contributed to it. Perhaps the most famous of Wordsworth’s poems is I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud and I am quite certain that the majority of readers of this page will be familiar with it and are reciting some or all of it from memory as they read.

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Coming to the end my wandering into poetry on this Christmas Eve here is Longfellow’s beautiful Christmas Poem:

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Perhaps less well-known than others of his poems, this poem of Wordsworth’s comes to mind, on this day especially, as it ends with the very wish that I make for all my readers, both regular readers and casual readers:

Minstrels

The minstrels played their Christmas tune

To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;

While, smitten by a lofty moon,

The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,

Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,

That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze

Had sunk to rest with folded wings:

Keen was the air, but could not freeze,

Nor check, the music of the strings;

So stout and hardy were the band

That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened?—till was paid

Respect to every inmate’s claim, The greeting given, the music played

In honour of each household name,

Duly pronounced with lusty call, And “Merry Christmas” wished to all.

(Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net)

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