Climate and Culture Cradle the Nativity | Poetry and Prose of R.S. Thomas

Jerusalem 2013, photo by Olivier Fitoussi via www.haaretz.com

Jerusalem 2013, photo by Olivier Fitoussi via http://www.haaretz.com

A White-Christmas-Dreamer? – No way!

There’s the Christmas of 1966, when impassable roads in southeastern Pennsylvania kept corks from popping and church doors from opening.

Having planned to spend Christmas with Nancy’s parents, our fridge was bare. Friends rescued us, inviting us to trudge through knee-high snow to their welcoming table. Nancy carried Peter in utero, I cradled ten-months-old Anne in my arms.

A warm memory . . . but I prefer snow-clear roads.

For me, Christmas means being with family, something that depends upon driving, and a reminder that what Christmas means to us is not necessarily what Christmas means.

Christmas for us may mean a holiday imposed by the culture in which we live. Or it may mean a time of festivity that was filled for previous generations, but not for us, with religious content. Or it may mean God-with-us in a baby born in a stable.

Was it snowing outside when Jesus was born?

In recent few days, there’s been snow in Bethlehem, and Nancy and I walked through snow on the Mount of Olives in early February of 1988. But when Jesus was born?

We don’t know. We don’t even know his birth’s time of year. The stable could have been a cool cave in the midst of a heat wave.

How we celebrate Jesus’ birth depends upon factors that have little or nothing to do with the nativity itself – climate and culture.

R. S. Thomas notes that “Christianity has tended to be transformed or adapted in every country into which it has made its way.”

Commercialization has twisted the dough of Christmas into marketable pretzels – my restatement of Thomas’s point.

“But the subtlest influence,” Thomas continues, “remains climatic. . . . .

Our more temperate winters [in England and Wales] afford a dual approach. We can relish the coldness of the season, the red cheeks, the high blood, without becoming insensitive to the claims of the hungry bird at our window, the pathos of bare boughs, and the darker associations of red berries in the snow.

In a poem published after Thomas’s death, he says “the holly will remind / us how love bleeds.”

Thomas continues his comments on how our geographical place shapes what Christmas means for us:

Also our economic prosperity over many centuries built up a feeling of snugness and warmth and good cheer within. ‘Fire and sleet and candlelight’ – these lend zest to Christmas indoors in a comfortable home, without blinding us to the plight of the less fortunate without, those who are caught in ‘the cauld, cauld blast’.

Thomas did not promote the gospel of the survival of the fittest. Rather, he preached the gospel of caring love for the least fit, for “the less fortunate without” – the homeless, whether they be men and women and children, or birds.

Christmas means different things for us, depending in large measure upon where we are placed in the world and in life.

But what does Christmas mean? Thomas essays an answer:

The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

 

Prose and poetry of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Christianity has tended to be transformed” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 44-45.

“the holly will remind” – “Festival,” Residues, 47.

“The moon is born” – “Nativity,” Experimenting With An Amen, 46.

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5 thoughts on “Climate and Culture Cradle the Nativity | Poetry and Prose of R.S. Thomas

  1. I love this blog. Your memories of your early Christmas resonate with me. It reminded me of some past Christmases.
    I am hoping and praying that the weather will not prevent Dave and family and (I just learned this a half hour ago) Eric and his family plan to be here on the 24th. Also, I was about to write a check our church for the malaria project.. Thomas cared so much about those less fortunate folk.

    • What fun, Barbara, to look forward to having two sons and their families with you for Christmas. May the airports be open with all planes flying, and may the road between Philly and Cornwall be dry! Peter is picking me up on the 23rd and bringing me back here on the 26th. My job is to make Lentil Sausage Soup for Christmas Eve. The lentils are French green ones that I learned about recently, the sausage is kielbasa. Ah, and a sturdy red wine to sip.

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