Christina Rossetti’s 1872 devotional poem, “A Christmas Carol,” has held a special place in my heart from the moment I first heard it at a high school friend’s Christmas concert and found myself unexpectedly weeping in the second row of the church I was visiting. In 1908, Gustav Holst set Rosetti’s poem to music: this was the hymn sung by my friend’s choir 20 years ago and still sung today throughout the world under the adapted title “In the Bleak Midwinter.” In 2008, a BBC Music magazine poll declared the Christmas carol the best ever composed.

As we reach the seasons of Advent and Christmas, many of us naturally begin to reflect on holidays past, loved ones who will be present for our celebrations and those who will not, and experiences we had as children and as adults. Rosetti’s “bleak” carol is nostalgic in a truthful way that I believe contributes both to my unexpected weeping when I first heard it and its enduring popularity. Usually, we associate Christmas carols with jollity, yet Rosetti’s is different. It evokes nostalgia and a truth about the Christmas story that is neither commercial nor pristine in its holy resonance.

To make this point, I begin with a memory that instigated my decision to write this essay. Before marrying my husband, my father cautioned me against doing so because “I would get too entangled with his family.” This statement might make it sound like my father didn’t like my husband or his family in particular, but neither of those assessments is true. What my father was worried about was that I was from South Carolina and my husband was from Oklahoma. My parents were ill, and marrying someone from another location meant my life story would change. Within a year of my getting married, my father died. The following year, my mother did as well.

Last Christmas, as I sat with my husband and children in my in-laws’ living room, the family shared stories of Christmases past. It was snowing outside in suburban Oklahoma where we were, and the trees outside were barren. My children and their cousins had recently burst through the door, laughing and screaming, after an intense snowball fight on the front lawn. With relaxed ease, the family lapsed into easy conversation about drunken antics from cigar-smelling uncles long passed, their grandmother’s divine sugar cookie recipe, and that one time the fire department got called because of a hair dryer mishap. I realized I would never be in a situation again where this type of easy banter would occur about my childhood Christmases. My children would never be in a community setting where Christmas lore from my side of the family would be passed down to their generation.

In this nostalgic moment tinged with joy, I realized that my memories alone would have to sustain me at Christmas and be enough for my children to understand their whole familial selves. I felt quietly alone, wondering if I was up to this task. And here’s where we circle back to Christina Rossetti’s poem, and the song created from it, that I began to hum on my in-laws’ tan leather couch and at other times during this past Christmas, and many others.

Like my childhood, Rossetti’s was love-filled but far from perfect. Rosetti was the youngest child of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian poet and scholar, and Francis Polidori Rossetti, an English-Italian poetess. She had four siblings; most notably, she is known as the sister to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Beyond a close bond with Dante Gabriel, she was close with her other siblings Maria Francesca and William Michael, well-known writers in their own rights. William Michael had two children, Olivia and Helen, who went on to become renowned authors and translators, carrying on the literary family tradition.

Olivia and Helen were fond of their aunt and influenced by her literary acumen and commitment to her family. It follows that Christina Rosetti, who never married, spent Christmases with this next generation of Rossettis, likely in nostalgic reveries of her own, reveries about her childhood growing up in a community centered on intellectual discussions and gatherings of like-minded souls. Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle were frequent visitors to her childhood home.

It is pertinent to share a little here about Rossetti’s private life beyond her family relations. She suffered from volatile depressive episodes as a child and adult, and she broke off a youthful engagement with a famous pre-Raphaelite painter, James Collinson. Even though Collinson converted to the Church of England for Christina, her religiosity could not be matched. Their faith differences, and differing levels of enthusiasm and doctrinal ideas, is what led to their separation. Collinson ultimately returned to the Catholic Church, and the relationship fell apart.

When I imagine what the holiday season must have felt like for an adult Rosetti, remembering what a rich childhood she had and the heartaches she experienced as a young adult and grown woman, I imagine it emotionally resonating with my own frequent pangs of nostalgia during Advent and Christmas. I often feel longing for never-to-be-grasped again moments of a bountiful, love-filled past, while still appreciating the beauty of the present. I also imagine Rosetti had a realistic recognition that the future might not have turned out quite how she imagined it would have in her childhood. She was 41 when she wrote the poem—the same age I am as I write this essay. Her nieces were 12 and 10. My children, as I compose this, are 8 and 9.

Yet, while I imagine middle-aged Rosetti may have felt pangs of yearnings for a past already over and a future seemingly decided when she wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Advent and Christmas are intrinsically joyful and hopeful, future-oriented seasons. They celebrate the Incarnation, that wondrous moment Christians believe God entered the world as an infant, the ultimate symbol of future promise and hope. There is no greater describable joy.

Concurrent with this joy, however, is a sense that we humans still reside on Earth, waiting for a promise yet to occur, waiting to return home to a place only envisioned in anticipative dreams. It is perhaps no coincidence that the holiday season is known as much for the nostalgia it fosters as for the joy it sparks in our hearts: Nostalgia is joy’s companion. As a word, it derives from the Greek compound word νόστος (nóstos), or “homecoming,” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “sorrow.” We might genuinely revel in a present holiday moment. As humans who have lived through many Christmases, we might likewise feel a sense of loss, a sense that the recurring, annual promise of ideal Christmas joy will remain forever unfulfilled during our lifetimes. Too, we might feel as if any present joy isn’t what we ought to be feeling or isn’t able to satisfy our internal longings because we remember the joy of previous times, with other loved ones once in rooms with us.

Further, we might contemplate the joy of a life we could have lived had we made different choices. Who might be in the room with us at Christmas if our decisions had altered this way or that? An ex-fiancée who now could be a husband would have been possible, in Rosetti’s case.

Children never born might have been in the room, too.

Inevitably, we will always lack fulfillment during a season that supposedly exemplifies it because such fulfillment cannot be obtained via our present earthly celebrations. We look to the past, and the future, and wonder what we could have done differently to make the current holiday celebration even better. We become nostalgic. Experiencing nostalgic memories during the holidays reprises a joyful past, crystallizes it, and renders it beautiful—all while reifying that this present beauty is not quite like the one we had years ago, or the way we envisioned it would be at some point. To draw perhaps too fine a point, I love my new family in Oklahoma, just as I miss the past one in South Carolina. Every holiday season, I dream of potential times when we all could connect, cognizant of the fact that this is an impossibility. As the three ghostly visitors remind us in Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol, the holiday makes us feel past, present, and future love acutely—and simultaneously.

Unabashed acknowledgment of the mixed emotions holidays awaken is why I think Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” (as we predominantly know it today) was designated the best Christmas hymn ever composed. The words are not saccharine, nor despondent. They are truthful in how Advent and Christmas veer us from one human emotion to the next, bringing us always closer to a moment of self-realization and grander truth but never fully realizing that truth. For instance, we yearn to hear the same carols year in and year out because they help us connect with our past, confront our present, and envision a possible future that should, and will, be. Humans share Rosetti’s myriad of muddled and hopeful emotions at Christmas. Our chaotic lives intermingle with that of the Holy Family’s as we contemplate their story and how it relates to our own, this year, last year, and the first year of our Lord’s birth.

Rossetti’s first two stanzas begin before Christ’s birth, before the Incarnation takes place in Bethlehem. She writes:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Here, Rossetti introduces her readers to a world waiting for the future to happen. It is a sad place, or “bleak.” Likewise, it is “hard as iron” and “moan[s].” The water is even frozen, “like a stone,” a metaphor often used for our hearts when they have been hurt or feel numb. Snow falls continuously “snow on snow,” signifying enchantment overtaking a cold, unsparing world. Think of seeing the brittle, barren trees around your home on a winter’s evening and then seeing those same trees made beautiful in the sun-kissed snow the next morning. The world changes through snow-filled accumulation. In Rossetti’s poem, set right before the Incarnation, much “snow” has fallen. The world needs not one dusting of snow for hope to spring (seasonal pun intended), but “snow on snow, snow on snow.”

The next stanza renders the hope in the first concrete. Rossetti writes:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter, a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

When the Incarnation happens, Rossetti suggests that hope, through God, comes even in the coldest times. As a Christian literary scholar who notices the lyric poem’s intent to evoke sentiment, I read her idea that “heaven cannot hold” God as directing us to the fact that there is always hope, even beneath the surface of our bleakest emotions. We may say we are despondent, but we are despondent because we remember, or know, what joy is from its absence. We are imminently nostalgic, homesick for joy, homesick for Heaven and the God who often feels separate from us but never is.

Distinctively, Rossetti does not seek Christ to make her happy: She seeks him to inspire joy. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, but joy from an Anglo-Catholic perspective, such as Rossetti’s (and a Catholic one such as my own), is one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23. Joy is not a temporary emotion like happiness; rather, it is a deep and abiding sense of spiritual gladness and contentment that stems from a relationship with God. In the poem, this joy is rendered manifest when Rossetti writes that God “came to reign” in “a stable-place” that “sufficed.” Our minds might associate the word “stable” with a barn that holds animals, but Rosetti links it with the anagogical stability of Christian joy, too. “The Lord God” is “Almighty” because he brings an anchor for desperate hearts that need joy-filled stability not short-lived happiness.

The next stanza reads:

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

This joy we’ve been speaking of isn’t the throwaway, saccharine feeling often associated with Christmas. Contrary to the shopping ads littering our TVs during the holidays, joy isn’t actually found in the enthusiastic emotions of children ripping open presents that wind up packed away well before next year’s celebration. A “breastful of milk” and a “manger of hay” are what the “Lord God Almighty” purportedly needs to feel “enough,” or joyful. Food and sustenance (his mother and a place to lay his head) are what the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14) aspires for once he becomes embodied on Earth.

Indeed, it is his mother’s love or human connection that matter to him. Not even the worship of “Angels” or “Cherubim” are what he seeks for comfort. Rossetti writes:

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

Jesus models what twenty-first century Christians know but frequently forget. When celebrating the Incarnation, what sustains us is the fleshly people around us, those with whom we can share a “kiss.” Even though we might remember the past more during the season, we are inevitably brought back to the present moment we are sharing with those surrounding us and thus the new memories we are making with them. The truth of the original Christmas is demonstrated through being with them and through the love they express toward us, and we express toward them.

And, of course, this leads us to Rossetti’s beautiful last stanza, where the most magnified spiritual turn in the poem occurs:

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.

Rossetti here muses about what we can do as humans who are not Mary but who celebrate the Incarnation every Christmas—even as we move further and further away from the first one in time, and even as the historical miracle of it is harder to recall. We cannot be there in the flesh at the nativity like those “shepherd[s]” or the “Wise M[e]n,” or Mary. Yet we can always trust in the promised joy of the Incarnation. We can trust the peace, or the stability, if you will, that contemplating the Christ-child’s birth can elicit once we stop concentrating so much on our transitory human emotions and give our hearts, our abiding love, to God. As St. Augustine once beautifully articulated, “Our hearts are restless till they find rest in you, O Lord.”

I plan to revisit my in-laws at Christmas this season—and look forward to doing so. As a human, I know my emotions will veer from nostalgia for the physical past (and heavenly future) to overwhelming love for the present moment. As a Catholic who believes in the spirit made flesh during the season, I will also seek, as Rossetti reminds us at the end of her poem, to give Jesus “my heart.” I will hum and sing this carol, fully enjoying the human connections present in the moment. And I will think of that “bleak midwinter” many years ago, when Mary, another human like me, felt myriad emotions, perhaps including nostalgia for times when she was not feeling lonely in a foreign barn, surrounded by the company of many with whom she did not grow up. I will think of that first “kiss” Mary shared with her “beloved” son, with God made flesh in front of her. And I will appreciate the past, and the promised future, as I share this universal Christmas memory with my human family around me, near and far, on this Earth and not.

This, Rosetti prophesizes, is the promise of the Incarnation during “the bleak midwinter.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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