Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
The other day I came across a poem I knew from childhood, by Thomas Hardy, written just over a century ago; and was so moved I had to stop everything else I was doing. It recalls the old country tradition that at the midnight hour on Christmas Eve animals perform their own nativity in honour of the ox and the ass who witnessed Christ’s birth in the stable at Bethlehem. It’s a lovely story that children accept without question, but as the years go by it fades, like so much of the enchantment of childhood. There are moments when it returns, as it does for the old boys in this poem, sitting at their fireside as midnight strikes. They are silent for a moment, like children again, believing without even trying that the animals in their own stables and byres are kneeling to adore the new born king.
What makes this even more poignant is its date. It was written in 1915, when the farm boys and the shepherds and the ostlers and the farriers were leaving their fields for the battlefields of northern France and Belgium and Gallipoli. The centenary of the Armistice this year has brought them vividly to mind, focusing us again on what they endured for King and Country. We’ll never have to endure the like, I hope, and it must have seemed distant from the England they returned to. What was it like, if you were quickly demobbed, to be home in time for Christmas 1918, only a month or so after the end of hostilities? To sing carols of peace and goodwill to all men after Mons and Ypres and the Somme? Unimaginable; but they did and we still do, for whatever life throws at us, as midnight strikes on Christmas Eve, that same hope awaits us. May you know it again this Christmas.
Yours in Christ,