St. Agnes Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent were the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death.
Keats was writing not about Christmastime, but about a feast that falls almost a month later. Yet his is description of the dark and cold of a world buried under winter conveys the sensations that Western writers have associated with Christmas for centuries.
Hardest to escape is the cold — cold as we central-heated, car-transported, down-vested moderns seldom know it. I don’t know how chilly Bethlehem actually gets on a winter’s evening — chilly enough, surely, for those who have no fire and only a drafty stable for shelter. But for hundreds of years European Christians have rubbed chilblained fingers and spared warm thoughts for that little family shivering in the stable hay, huddled close to the beasts whose shelter they were sharing.
One of those starkly beautiful and startlingly direct medieval poems presents Our Lady’s thoughts upon offering her Son so cold a welcome:
Jesu, swete, be not wroth,
Though ich n’abbe clout ne cloth
Thee on for to folde,
Thee on to folde ne to wrappe,
For ich n’abbe clout ne lappe; But lay thou they feet to my pappe,
And wite thee from the colde.
Jesus, sweet, be not wroth,
though I have neither clothing nor cloth
to fold you in, to fold you in or to wrap around,
for I have neither clothing nor a fold of garment;
but lay thou thy feet at my breast
to keep thee from the cold.”
Traditional Christmas carols also dwell on the Christ Child’s rude entrance into the world. “The First Noel” tells of “a cold winter’s night that was so deep,” and “Good King Wenceslaus” evokes a wintry Christmas warmed by a miracle: The King’s feet melt a path for the young page to follow through the steep snow.
We Christians who yearly revisit the Gospel story of privation and divine humility — Christ in St. Paul’s words “not deeming divinity something to be grasped at,” though the world He was born into was at its least welcoming — have, in our imaginative retellings, almost reveled in the trials of the Holy Family. Part of our joy in welcoming Christ among us lies in assuring ourselves that He joins us in all our darkest hours, as He first joined us in the darkest and least sustaining time of year.
In the green springtime or bright autumn we may deceive ourselves into believing that Jesus suffered little by being born among us (setting apart, of course, the bitter end of His life). We may even have, somewhere way at the back of our heads, the ludicrous thought that His childhood was a kind of treat for a God Who had for endless eons been “deprived” of a body. In the winter, and especially in the less well-cushioned winters earlier generations underwent, the sacrificial element in the Incarnation is not as easy to escape from.
Jesus showed Himself the supreme gift-giver by coming among us to live our life and die a singularly repellent form of our death. To face this clearly is to be moved to ardent gratitude.
But Jesus also allows mankind to be gift-givers. Our God permitted Himself to be grateful to us: for the Samaritan woman’s drink at the well; for the hospitality of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; for the penitential foot-washing of Mary Magdalene; for the housekeeping of the women who accompanied Him; for the young boy’s loaves and fishes; for the million-and-one favors and forbearances and for “the kindness of strangers” that carry every human being through his earthly existence. Perhaps the greatest mark of Jesus’s emptying of Himself was this submission to the generosity of those who had by their sinfulness already offended Him so deeply and who needed Him so desperately.
We are all needy creatures, and the form of love that comes to us most easily is need-love. But the God Who has made us in His image also permits us to share, or to aspire to share, in His gift-love. Mothers and fathers do this, members of families and groups and nations do it in different ways in differing degrees, as they are prompted by their better selves and as they are able. This giving can bring the purest joy we will know on earth (though so can conquering our pride to allow others to give to us). Mankind was allowed the headiest form of this gift-love when we were allowed to provide for the bodily needs of the Incarnate God.
The Christmas songs and stories allow us to dwell on the services we creatures rendered our God when He was tiny, and helpless, and cold, and hungry. There is always something awe-inspiring about the complete neediness of a newborn — why should he trust me, a mother thinks, why should he be forced to trust me? That is why the Christmas story combines great joy, great humility — and a tiny dash of vicarious pride, the pride felt by the insignificant servant of a mighty master.