Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Seventh Day of Christmas ― The Oxen

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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, December 31st, is the Seventh Day of Christmas. It’s also New Year’s Eve, the last day of the calendar year.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and communities that still follow the older Julian calendar, Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6) fall on January 7 and January 19, respectively, in the modern Gregorian calendar, meaning that for some Christians, Christmas has yet to arrive. And that’s my rationale for writing about a wonderful Christmas poem, “The Oxen,” by one of my favorite writers, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

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None of the Biblical descriptions of Christ’s birth mentions animals near the manger, but it makes sense that religious leaders embroidered the Bible stories to make them as familiar and appealing as possible to their illiterate parishioners.

Over the centuries, the animals have crept into the Nativity story: the ass and cow, displaced from their stalls by their unexpected stable-mates; perhaps a few hens, drowsing on the rafters; and of course, the sheep, crowding gently around their shepherds as they came into the light and warmth.

To the early Christians, the inclusion of these silent witnesses brought the Heavenly story down to earth, giving human context to God’s great gift, the Christ Child. The inclusion of stable animals at the Nativity was first recorded in the 9th century chant O magnum mysterium, the fourth of the nine responsorial chants sung during Matins on Christmas Day:

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum,
jacentum in praesepio.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
Alleluia.

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that beasts should behold the newborn Lord
lying in a manger.
O blessed Virgin, whose womb
hast merited to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia.

I grew up on a farm, where an old legend ― beloved, if not altogether believed ― held that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the animals in the stable would kneel in prayer, in recognition of the birth of Christ. The story holds the most appeal for little children and, I suppose, those who believe blindly in the stories of the Christian Nativity.

English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) knew the legend well, and used it as a vehicle to express his own views on religion.

The Oxen
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
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Originally published in The Times of London, December 24, 1915; a revised version was published in Moments of Vision, 1918.

A barton is a cow-shed; a coomb is a valley.

The first line of the third stanza originally read: “So fair a fancy few believe;” Hardy later revised it to read “So fair a fancy few would weave”

In sixteen simple lines, in regular meter and with a regular rhyme scheme (abab/cdcd/efef/ghgh), Hardy presents questions which have been central to Western human thought for two millennia or more – is there a God? Was that babe born in Bethlehem, and was that child endowed with some sort of divinity? And is the story worthy of our hope, faith, and worship?

With carefully chosen words, he paints the classic Nativity scene: the children are, like sheep, in a “flock;” the creatures are “meek and mild,” like Jesus (e.g., in Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”) and Mary (anonymous 15th century song, “Mary, mother, meek and mild”).

By evoking a childhood memory common to many of us ― gathering around the hearth to hear an elder recount a beloved Christmas story – Hardy draws us in to an intimate place, where we become children once again, ready to hope, ready to believe; and indeed, as he says, most children did believe, and never would have thought to do otherwise: “Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.”

Hardy acknowledges that times have changed, and that modern people are less likely to believe the old story: “So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years!”

Still, he acknowledges the human need for security of mind and body, and the tradition of seeking that security in the comfort of religion, despite the “gloom,” that is, despite the uncertainty and unlikelihood of finding that which is sought: “Yet, I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / “Come; see the oxen kneel … I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.”

“Hoping it might be so.”

At this point, some readers will think, “He hopes that it might be so, and believes that it will be so. He believes; he has faith.”

Others will interpret that last line thus: “He hopes that it might be so, but knows that it will not be so. He does not believe.”

“Hoping it might be so.” Hardy makes no suggestion that it was so, or is so, or would be so.

What he is invoking is the memory of hope, his reminiscence of the mystery he felt on Christmas Eve, when as a little child he heard the tale and wondered if the animals would indeed kneel down in their “strawy pen.” And by crafting this poem so intimately, he draws us in to the story, and takes us back to our childhood’s dream, so that we may feel the full weight of that last line, “Hoping it might be so.” This is an expression of lost faith, a song of nostalgia for the feeling of faith, and perhaps an acknowledgement of the powerful appeal of the Nativity story, especially to children.

I’ve read analyses of this poem that remark on its “sorrow of disbelief,” or say that it “aches with a sense of loss and exclusion” or is marked by “wistful regret or poignant loss.” There may be poignancy and perhaps even wistfulness, but there is no regret, and no a “sorrow of disbelief,” and certainly no impulse to return to the stable.

Hardy composed “The Oxen” in 1915, as World War I was spattering Europe with the blood of millions of young men lost to the carnage of the trenches; it was a time (“In these years!”) when many turned away from God and the comforting religion that many had previously accepted without question (“Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt”). Though Hardy had been raised in the Christian tradition, and had even, early on, considered an ecclesiastical career, by the time he wrote this poem (1915), he had long since abandoned his faith and accepted a rational, humanist, atheistic outlook.

No matter your belief, Hardy’s “The Oxen” is a beautifully crafted poem and certainly one of his best. A detailed, nicely referenced analysis and contextual discussion, worthy of your time, may be found here:
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/poems/pva141.html

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “The Oxen” is the central movement of his Christmas cantata Hodie, which I recently performed with The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. You can read all my essays about the concert series here:

http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Vaughan%20Williams%20Ralph

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