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When Icicles Hang By the Wall

Jared and his Granny Aaron and Jared

Two weeks ago we had our first snowfall of the

winter, on the last day of Autumn! What excitement it used to be as a child—the thrill of waking to a brand new world, a different world from yesterday. Couldn’t wait to get out and do stuff: first footsteps on a virgin path; snowballs; sledging; building snowmen. Now, at 77, the magic of snow has diminished. Oh, I still marvel at the masterpiece of a white blanket, but at 77 my appreciation is entirely aesthetic. After the first brief moments of delight at the carpet of white, my thoughts turn to de-snowing the car, scraping the windows, clearing the drive and path, and hoping for an early thaw. Shakespeare’s song in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” fits my feelings about winter rather better.

When icicles hang by the wall, And Dick the shepherd blows his nail, And Tom bears logs into the hall, And milk comes frozen home in pail, When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul, Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whoo; Tu-whit, tu-who, a merry note, While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow, And coughing drowns the parson’s saw, And birds sit brooding in the snow, And Marian’s nose looks red and raw, When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl, Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whoo; Tu-whit, tu-whoo, a merry note, While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

(William Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene II)

I’m sorry to say the first snowfall brings out grumpy-old-manishness in me nowadays. At least it’s Christmas card weather, I suppose—though not necessarily Christmas weather. Snowy scenes for cards are ubiquitous, because in our country Christmas is bound up with winter scenes, activities and traditions, but in Australia, a beach barbecue is more likely than a turkey dinner by a log fire. Neither climate reflects weather for the first Christmas. In Israel, December is mild, a daily average of around 14ºC, and snow is rare. We tend to interpret history by our own experience, even today. For centuries artists depicted the nativity in the contemporary clothes and climate of their own country—Mary and Joseph clothed in 16th century Italian fashion! There was little or no knowledge of the social context of the Nativity, so the best guess was what the artist and his friends were familiar with. In words and music, traditional Christmas carols often describe a scene with little relation to historical reality, and the lullaby Mary sang for Jesus would be quite different from our music, or even 14th century plainsong. We may even have got the date wrong; many scholars favour early Spring rather than midwinter.

You might now be confirmed that I’m a bah humbug grumpy old man. Not so! I thoroughly enjoy our traditional Christmas, snowy cards and all. I’m grateful we don’t live in Australia—it just wouldn’t be the same—not sure if I could get the Christmas spirit on Bondi Beach after my English Christmases. I love everything about it, accurate or not. Presentism is not inherently bad and can help elucidate the unfamiliar. But there’s a line in the sand. There’s a state of things that actually exist, beyond idealistic notions or social context, things that actually happened, no matter what the weather was like or the fashion in clothes. The realities behind the Christmas story are the same in every era and every country. There was a miraculous conception by a virgin called Mary. Jesus is the Son of God and was born in Bethlehem. There was a star signifying his birth. Angels did appear to the Shepherds. Wise Men did visit with gifts to honour him. Sadly, Herod did try to kill him. The young family really fled to Egypt to escape. The New Testament account by Mathew and Luke is true: it is the fundamental centre of Christmas and worth all our rejoicing and celebration, even with snow and icicles!


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