We begin this journey in a bleak and inhospitable place. The frosty wind moans, chills us to the bone. We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again.
Sung in the voice not of the privileged but of the poor, “IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER” reminds us that Jesus was born under harsh conditions, excluded from comfort, in a shed for animals. “A stable place sufficed.”
Clinging to the Creative Life
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), the British poet who penned these words, was born the same year as Emily Dickinson. She grew up in a poor but intellectually stimulating family in the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury. Artists and writers filled their shabby living room to discuss Italian literature and art. Her father was a professor at Kings College, Oxford. A Dante scholar, he could quote the entire Divine Comedy from memory.
The four Rossetti children were educated by their mother, a cultured woman of English and Italian heritage, and grew up to become writers, poets, and painters. Christina, the poet of the family, often posed for her brother Dante, one of the founding members of the avant-garde artistic group, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Rossetti wrote hundreds of haunting, wistful, mystical, and spiritual poems in English and Italian. In 1862 her collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published to great acclaim, its title poem rediscovered and celebrated by 20th century feminists.
Christina never married, but remained independent, devoted to poetry and to campaigns against slavery, animal experimentation, and sexual exploitation of young women. She was often in poor health, never had money, and, emotionally, knew well the “bleak midwinter” landscape. Still, through all of life’s ups and downs, she was sustained by intellectual curiosity, poetry, art, and faith.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” was published posthumously and set to music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), best known for his orchestral suite “The Planets.” Pairing Rossetti’s text with Holst’s melody (“Cranham”), this beloved Christmas song is included in The Oxford Book of Carols and many hymnals. It has been covered by modern secular artists, from the English indie rock band Bombay Bicycle Club to Scottish singer Annie Lennox and treasured American singer-songwriter James Taylor.
The Faint Music of One String
We are given a pallet of many colors, some vibrant, some muted. Like our faith, this hymn tells us that, even in a cold, unsparing place, we find the Sacred or the Sacred finds us, reminding us to hold on to what is good.
It is a concept exquisitely rendered in an oil painting by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). A female figure with bandaged eyes sits atop the globe, a single star in her sky. She cradles a lyre which has only one unbroken string. Still, she bends to hear its faint music. The painting is titled “Hope.”
It’s said that Nelson Mandela had this print on his prison cell wall at Robben Island. Martin Luther King preached about the image, as did Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 1990. Noting that the figure had only one string left he said, “she had the audacity to make music and praise God…. To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope… that’s the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt’s painting.” In the congregation that day was a young student from the Harvard Law School named Barack Obama who has since called it his favorite painting.
A Carol in the Key of Blue
The Christmas season can be loud and exhausting, a little too much fa-la-la-la-la. It is especially painful for those who are grieving, feeling alienated or bewildered, in pain, lonely, discouraged. We find ourselves, again, in a barren landscape. The music is faint, hope is fragile. For many, this will be a Christmas that hurts.
But we are persistent. In the bleak midwinter it is easy to forget that we have anything to offer, poor as we are. We stumble into the stable behind shepherds and kings and eye the gifts being offered. They range from the polished and magnificent to the plain and mundane, and the sweetest gift of all, a mother’s kiss. Kneeling on aching knees, we suddenly realize what it is we have to give — our own breaking, hopeful hearts, ever and always open to the little prince of peace.
TO GO DEEPER:
“In the Bleak Midwinter” hymn music and lyrics
History of the hymn by C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship Ministries website
Lengthy essay on Rossetti on the Poetry Foundation website
“Gustav Holst: In the Bleak Mid-Winter” British Classical Music site
The carol, sung in 2006 by Gloucester Cathedral Choir, with lyrics
Corrinne May (Singaporean musician) performs the carol at Peets Coffee & Tea
Bombay Bicycle Club cover of the carol in the Live Lounge, BBC Visual Radio
Women’s instrumental trio plays the carol with harp and violin, led by Norway’s Tine Thing Helseth on trumpet
Sissel Kyrkjebø (from Norway) sings “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”/ accompanied by orchestra