Those of us who associate Christmas with cold weather, rain, snow, dark days with little sunlight, and windy chills, might sometimes forget to count our blessings. It is, in one sense, a bleak time of year where it might be tempting to book that flight to Cancun in hopes of spending the winter holidays by the beach or in some form of party atmosphere. There is something unique, however, about places where Christmas falls during a cold and dark season. A change in climate, a transient and perhaps even trivial element, alters the way that we learn to appreciate Christmas, for it forces us to look beyond Christmas as a time for feasting and celebrating and receiving gifts. The remark by English poet Anne Bradstreet paraphrases the sentiment best: “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” A visual change in landscape sparks a shift in people’s artistic and literary imagination by calling us to see beauty in bleakness. Winter carries with it an air of adversity and change that can lead us to appreciate the paths of life that lead in many and different directions—some good, some bad.
The medieval English poem known as “Wynter Wakeneth Al My Care,” written circa 1320, expresses the effect that winter has on the mind, and consequently how it fits into the season—the season of Advent. If I may make a brief digression into a literary lesson, I’ll elaborate on the piece for a moment. The poem is written in Middle English, and frankly, I think it’s always best to read it this way, for effect, music, rhyme, and meaning:
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht. (1-5)
The trick to reading Middle English is not to focus on the words that seem foreign, like “wakeneth”—it’s just wakes, or awakens. Often, it’s the simple words that carry a very different meaning from the one we know today. In the first line, the important word is care, which has been mostly translated into sorrow. Winter awakens all my sorrow. The poet continues saying that now these leaves waxeth (or wax—which means grow) bare. Now these leaves grow bare. He continues, “Ofte I sike ant mourne sore—Often I sigh and mourn sore. When it comes into his thoughts; “Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht”—Of this world’s joy, how it all goes to nothing. The poet contemplates winter as a reminder of his worries related to the transience of life:
Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Al so hit ner nere, ywys;
That moni mon seith, soth hit ys:
Al goth bote Godes wille:
Alle we shule deye, thah us like ylle. (6-10)
This verse is more difficult in Middle English. The first line can be rewritten as “now it is, and now it is not,” describing how things live and die from one stage to the next. “Al so hit ner nere, ywys,”—As so (if) it never were, surely. The next line (8) may look foreign, but if we read it aloud it actually comes alive: “That moni mon seith, soth hit ys”—That many men say, so it is. A better rewriting of this line would be “That, which many men say, is true”: Aloud, again, “Al goth bote Godes wille”—All goes but God’s will. And he adds, All we should die, though us like ill, meaning, we all shall die, even though we like it ill (don’t like it). The final stanza marks the change from a reflection on winter to a reflection on salvation:
Al that gren me graueth grene,
Nou hit faleweth albydene:
Jesu, help that hit be sene
Ant shild us from helle!
For y not whider y shal, ne hou longe her duelle (11-15)
The first line reads “All that green that grows green”—all the vegetation that grows green, “Now it falls away (faleweth) altogether. He adds, finally, “Jesus, help that it be sene.” Sene here is translated in different ways; as “seen” or “sign,” meaning visually clear. Most people have translated the phrase as “understood”: Jesus, help that it be understood, though I find this translation too strong. “Sene,” to me, connotes a more sense-based awareness of death. After all, the poet concludes the poem by writing, “For I not wither I shall, nor how long here dwell”—For I do not (know) where I shall (go), nor how long I will dwell here. The poet himself does not know what will become of his life, he can only hope for a sign. We cannot understand the beginning and end of things, we can only sense them, in one way or another. Like the Magus at the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” who expresses the paradox of Christ’s birth and the death for his way of life, he could not fully understand why he had undergone a spiritual change, but it was undeniable for him after seeing the Nativity. “Wynter Wakeneth Al My Care” uses winter as a muse to convey the changes of life, literally as leaves turn and grass stops growing, but also the changes in our own life. The value of change is precisely what winter ought to remind us of during this Holy time of year.
A praise of change has become a passionate topic for me to talk about as a conservative; that is, once I realized that with change, and really only through change, are we brought closer to understanding the value of those things that matter most: Family, tradition, and God. These three elements have been with us from the first, and continue to accompany us through all forms of change. Here, I want to transition into the relationship between winter and the Nativity. The Nativity for me goes hand in hand with the winter landscape, in one part for aesthetic reasons, but in another for their mutual representation of these common elements of hope in the midst of adversity, bleakness, and change. St. Aquinas remarked that the Incarnation is itself the highest meaning of hope. No matter the differences in cultures, one thing that has always remained at the center of many a family’s Christmas celebration is the display of the Nativity scene, which is in itself the very embodiment of family, God, and the beginning of tradition.
Thinking about the meaning of mangers always brings to mind the image of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, “Census at Bethlehem” (1566). In a bleak midwinter scene people are running around hectic, their faces obscured as they are only focused on their work—whatever frivolous thing it may be—too occupied to recognize the Holy Family walking among them. A pregnant Mary and Joseph are in their midst, in search of a manger, but everyone’s backs are turned in the opposite direction. Even the viewer of the painting is likely to easily dismiss them at a first glance. The painting is composed in such a way that draws out any attention from Mary and Joseph; thus, the viewer must look for them to notice them. The cold landscape of the painting—in both the literal weather but also in the gestures and postures of the people—imparts an important message through its themes: Winter, for all of the hardship it conveys, is one of the best meditative settings in which to contemplate what Christianity teaches is on the other side of bleakness: Birth.
Winter may only be a symbol to some, but it is a symbol that has been universal in its influence on the Christmastime imagination even to this day. Winter, for many of us, signals the coming end of the year. It is a time when we reflect on our labor, what we’ve achieved, what we haven’t achieved, what we will do better or make right. How much of this reflection is focused on the joy and mystery of the Nativity? It is easy to get so preoccupied with our own lives, that we forget that this time of year is also a reminder that the renewal we often want to produce from our own doing actually comes from grace. This is not to say that we should not strive to be better or improve certain aspects of ourselves; rather, that in order to achieve this change, we cannot only look in ourselves; we must turn around and face the symbol of grace that is among us: The Nativity, with Christ at the center, but, by extension of Christ portrayed as a child in a manger surrounded by his parents, our families as well.
Today the Nativity is a tradition of its own in various parts of the world. One that is particularly unique (and a personal favorite) is the Krakow szopka, which uses traditional buildings from Krakow, Poland as a backdrop for the Nativity scene. The lively, castle-like displays are placed throughout the city; they are unique from most nativity scenes in their use of height, color, and patterns. Most countries recreate the nativity utilizing the same humble materials that we’ve learned from the stories: Some wood for the shed, and hay—lots of it. Still, every country recreates the Nativity scene with materials and touches that are unique to their culture. It is possible to see these unique mangers simply by walking into churches of various cities, states, and countries, since most have beautiful displays unique to their location. Still the manger is always a visual representation of simplicity, humility, and yes, even bleakness. It is precisely for this reason that mangers should not only have their place in churches; they should be part of our homes.
The act of displaying the Nativity scene should precede any Christmas tree, lights, sock, or holly wreath, for it is a daily reminder during this special time of year of the joy and miracle that can come from the humblest of origins. It is also a reminder that simplicity and unity should come before any form of festivity or extravagance. We spend time adorning our homes for Christmas with numbers of elaborate decorations, but we don’t always take the time to build a little manger. The manger is special for children, who are only just learning to feel (not yet understand) what the coming of Christ means for us. But the manger is also for adults: it is a way of organizing our priorities about what the holiday season is all about. More profoundly, the manger is an inspiration for wonder—for mystery. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
“The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery. We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery. Therefore, children have open, wide-awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by the mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don’t know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we sense that here we reach the boundary of our being, because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal, and that’s just what we cannot do with the mystery . . .”
Bonhoeffer believed that living without mystery was the equivalent of not knowing anything about the mystery of our own lives or the lives of others. The Nativity helps rectify this dearth by reminding us of the importance of mystery, because it signals in itself a form of change. “Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them,” Bonhoeffer concluded. These crucial processes are, more than often, things which we cannot understand—and perhaps never will. The mystery of the Nativity, however, can continue to spark in us that same jolt from reality that awakened the Magus in Eliot’s poem and helped him to see past the comforts of his previous life.
Finally, I’d like to end on a gentler note. Winter and the Nativity demonstrate indeed that their bleakness beckons hope through Christ, by compelling us to contemplate change, such as life and death—a memento mori, if you will. But we must also not forget the stronger message that comes to our rescue upon reflecting on these rather difficult issues. This message can be seen, among other places, in one of the most famous Christmas poems. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is known by most as a British Christmas carol, but it was originally a poem before Gustav Holst set it to music in 1906. The poem was written by Christina Rossetti and was published in the January 1872 edition of Scribner’s Monthly. It is said that Rossetti was paid only £10 for the poem, but like the best of literature, its impact cannot be judged by its initial appraisal. The poem sets the narrative for the Nativity by reminding us of the setting in which this event takes place, then contrasting the magnificence of the Savior with the simple place where he was born:
In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Not only is the manger a simple place, but Rossetti also contrasts the angel’s worshipping of Christ with the minimal things that Mary and Joseph were able to provide on that night:
Enough for Him, whom Cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and Archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But only His Mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved with a kiss.
This poem does not require too much in-depth analysis to understand its message, which is what makes it such an appropriate poem for the Nativity specifically. Our Christian theology is replete with metaphysical and philosophical questions to which our wisest and most devout thinkers and theologians have dedicated their lifetimes. Even unknown poets, such as the writer of “Wynter Wakeneth Al My Care,” dedicated verses to these questions of life, death, and salvation. We’ve been handed down a rich literature of thought over the most important questions of what it means to be human, and what it means to attempt to understand this life and all of its complications. We can muse over these things in winter, spring, summer, or fall, before and after the Nativity. But once He is Born, it is no longer a time to dissect and think intricately about the complexities of our faith and lives. On the day of the Nativity, there is but one thing we must do:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Notes Anne Bradstreet, Meditations Divine and Moral (1664).  See the original manuscript here.  St. Aquinas, Summa Theologica.  Nayeli Riano, “Waiting on the Word: George Herbet’s ‘Christmas (I)’,” Transpositions.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas.  “In the Bleak Midwinter – Holst,” YouTube video, 4:23, “morphthing1,” November 9, 2012.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on December 23, 2019.