Feast of St. Stephen, deacon & martyr
We arise early every December 23 to prepare for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But also to begin our journey through the coming Twelve Days of Christmas. We start wth early morning tea, a habit that we began in Cambridge, England. We lived there in the winter of 1972-1973 while I did research, and Kelly and I awaited the birth of our third child.
Every Christmas Eve “A Ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols” is performed by the choristers at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. We did not attend when we arrived there ino 1972, but we have listened to the BBC broadcast most years since then. This year we are again in Florida, and we listen to the live BBC broadcast from our home in DeLand.
The ceremony begins at 3:00 pm in England as the sun sets on one of the shortest days of the year. But we are in Florida and the time is only 10:00 am. Outside our Florida home the sun shines brightly and the day is already warm. In a few hours it will be hot with the sun burning high in the clear blue sky.
We settle in with our teapot and teacups, and then — in a few moments — time is no more. Kelly and I have slipped back into Christmas Eve at 3:00 pm in 1972, standing outside the ancient and majestic King’s College Chapel in England. We gaze at the chapel built by King Henry VI in 1446 under a dark and cloudy winter sky. I’m wearing a heavy woolen overcoat, and Kelly is wrapped in heavy wool as well.
Simultaneously in England and Florida, I hear the first note of the ceremony on the BBC. A young boy chorister breaks the silence as his sweet, clear and crisp voice sings
Once in Royal David’s City
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed...
And at that moment I am again standing across from the long line of people waiting to enter the chapel. My thoughts are the same as they were in 1972: “The line is too long, and there will be no room for us within. Besides, Kelly is six months pregnant and we are both shivering in the cold. We will have to go elsewhere this first Christmas Eve far from home.”
We slowly walk arm-in-arm, away from the university towards the city centre. It is dusk. The outdoor city market is still open, and the crowds are busy with last minute shoping. But everyone is in good cheer, and we wander from food stall to food stall -- passing the cheesemonger, the baker, the fishmonger, the butcher, and merchants of every sort. Then, we hear music from the far side to the market square, and we slowly drift over to the small crowd gathered around the Salvation Army Band.
Now it is completely dark except for the market street lamps, and the uniformed men and women of the Salvation Army begin a medley of Christmas carols. I don’t remember which carols they sang that night, but Kelly and I joined in as we knew each of them from our Christmases Past in America. Though we were alone, there was great comfort in singing -- in our own language -- carols we had been singing since childhood.
But then there was one English carol I had never heard before: “Ding Dong Merrily on High…” I was both joyous and entranced when I first heard the carol. But today, on this morning in Florida, the choristers sing “Ding Dong” as one of the carols chosen for this year’s ceremony.
As this year’s Festival ends, I sit in my armchair and gaze at the Christmas tree across the room. Kelly and I say little to each other about our journey together this morning.
That Christmas Eve in 1972 was followed by three months in Cambridge while we hopefully and nervously awaited the birth of our child.
And now in 2016, as we listen to the choristers at Kings, we again travel beyond Cambridge across the ancient fenland marshes as we did that winter long ago: first to pray for his health while he was still in the womb, as we make pilgrimage to the medieval shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. There we pray for the health of our unborn baby.
After his birth, we make pilgrimage to Walsingham again, And then we go on to Norwich, where we sit in the chapel of the mystic Dame Julian. She consoles us as we hold our new-born son Bartholomew in our arms. He carries the same genetic disease as his brother Ean, and his sister Kyla. And we know his fate will be the same as theirs: Bartholomew will die in just a few months.
From the Fourteenth-Century Dame Julian comforts us in 1972, in 2016, and in all the year between. She says to our hearts,
“All shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well."
The music has ended. We turn off the BBC. We are back in Florida. Silently, we pour strong English tea into our cups. And once again, we know, we are again on pilgrimage through the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Your comments are always welcome. Email me here.