Christmas, In My Bleak Midwinter
Editor’s Note: The following column by Darryl Tippens first was posted in December 2019. The coming winter seems even bleaker than a year ago, with the COVID pandemic to thank. Dr. Tippens’ reflection on the Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is re-posted as an early Christmas gift.
By DARRYL TIPPENS
I have celebrated many Christmases, but only a few come to mind with intense color and emotion. There was the year my brother and I got a Lionel electric train. It was beyond anything I had ever hoped for. Another year I got some roller skates. The weather turned sunny and mild that day, and I skated for hours in the city park near our house.
The most remarkable Christmas occurred the year after Mom passed away. A few days before Christmas, my wife Anne and I went home to Dad’s quiet house. It was almost dark that evening when Dad decided that he would install the lawn Christmas ornaments just as Mom had always done. We got out the little white framed deer covered in small white lights, but there was a problem. The pieces were old and fragile. As we began to assemble the deer, the materials began to fall apart. Dad furiously tried to make the pieces fit together, but the more he worked at it, the more the pieces crumbled. Dad began to weep. “Dad,” I said. “It won’t work. We can go get some new ornaments!” I was missing the point. These were Mom’s ornaments. They had been a part of her world; and now they were going away, just as she had. We went back into the house. That year, there was no brightly lit deer on the front lawn.
In a recent survey, people were invited to answer this question: “Tell the truth: During the holidays do you ever feel sad and lonely?” 70 percent of the respondents said “yes”; another 19 percent said “a little.” Only 7 percent said “never!” I have my doubts about the honesty of the 7 percent, but for the near 90 percent who admit to feeling some sadness during the holiday, I offer a few thoughts. First, you are in good company. Furthermore, the Bible, the greatest Christmas carols, and the deepest meaning of the holiday are on your side.
There’s a reason Elvis Presley croons a blue, blue Christmas; and Karen Carpenter admits “I’ll Be Home for Christmas . . . if only in my dreams.” (The Internet will give you over 50 sad Christmas songs, if you want them.) These songs are not contradictions to the idea of Christmas, it turns out. If Robert Browning were right—“God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world”—we wouldn’t have needed Christmas in the first place. Christmas was invented, you might say, because all is not right with the world. Christmas is about a divine intervention in a world badly in need of repair. In Scriptural terms, Christmas is for people who live in a land of “deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2-3).
The greatest Christmas carols are unabashed about this “dark side” to the story. While many carols glitter with sweet sentiments, the enduring ones are blunt about the fact that there are dark themes in the original story. The light of Christmas shines most brilliantly when we admit the darkness of our circumstances. When you sing with gusto about the manger, remember it was, after all, a smelly feeding trough for livestock in a barn (or cave) that lacked central heating. Remember the Holy Family narrowly escaped murderous Herod’s plot to kill the Christ Child.
Some of the verses of our best-known Christmas carols are clear about evil in the world. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is frank about the “misery” of the world into which the child is born. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” declares “the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,” and “beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong.”
In 2008 the BBC asked leading choir directors in the U.K. and America to name the top Christmas carols of all time. They named “In the Bleak Midwinter” as the finest one of all. I admire their verdict. The first verse of Christina Rossetti’s lyric isn’t cheery, but it’s real:
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
The carol does move towards joy, of course, with all the requisite elements of a “happy” carol; but the adorable cherubs, animals, and Baby, are set over against real darkness. Christmas is about paradox—both light and darkness, joy and sorrow, salvation and suffering. Lop off the dark stuff and you trivialize the story.
Please understand. I like happy songs too, so do invite me to sing “Jingle Bells” with you. But please give me room to feel that not all’s right with the world, because it’s not. The measure of our joy at the Savior’s coming is proportionate to our awareness of how much we need saving.
Until the day Dad and I futilely attempted to assemble the Christmas lawn ornament, my father had always stood stoic, heroic—and remote—in my eyes. A member of “the Greatest Generation,” he was not someone I could easily talk to or understand. But in that cold December twilight as we crouched together on the front lawn fiddling with the broken pieces of the display, he silently wept, and I felt a sudden rush of sorrow and compassion for him that I had never felt before. His expression of grief in my presence became a silent bond between us, which was a kind of gift.
The central ceremony of Christmas is gift-giving—not the exchange of stuff bought on Amazon—but the giving of one’s heart to another. God gave us his own heart when he gave us his Son, and through Christmas he invites us to give our hearts in return. “In the Bleak Midwinter” closes:
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.
My advice: grant people space to feel what they feel this Christmas—however cheery or not. The generous space for honest feeling may be the means to one of the best Christmas gifts you’ll ever give or receive.
Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University.
A different, more contemporary one, by James Taylor:Kiri Te Kanawa’s version is very moving:QuireCleveland’s version is also very well done: