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Presence at Christmas (plus a free download)

Christmas. An odd time of year. For some, primarily children I imagine, a time of wonder and anticipation. For many, a reflective and even bittersweet time of tallying up the losses and gains of the year, of marking the passage of time. And for not so few, a desperately sad time when the perception of themselves as outcasts from the warmth of family and love is rubbed into their wounded souls by every supermarket soundtrack and television advert. For a very few, the Christ, whose birth the holiday was created to commemorate, is the prime focus. And for many who are of other faiths, the traditions of creating light at the darkest time of year are, none the less, enacted.

I, perhaps, fall into most of these categories. Growing up in a Jewish family in a small city in Canada, we celebrated by going out for a meal at the Nanking or the Shanghai, Winnipeg's two Chinese restaurants, on Christmas Day. On Boxing Day, for many years, we were taken to our neighbours, the Dockers, where we enjoyed an ersatz Christmas and secretly envied the strange world of decorated cards and tree lights and mince pies. It seemed to me that when I grew up and could arrange things in my own way, I would enjoy no greater delight than splattering gold glitter on home made cards and stringing up fairylights.

But when I did grow up and found myself far from family and married to someone whose tradition was to celebrate Christmas with all the trimmings, I increasingly felt myself a Christmas imposter, a sort of Gérard Depardieu in the film Green Card, who is purported to have delivered all his lines whilst not understanding a word he was saying.

Though I have never really learned to reconcile the inner struggle this conflict of tradition, personal belief and societal demands can engender, I do recognise that this darkest time of year is very beautiful. The stillness of December mornings; rising in the dark to a sleepy world; launching oneself into the elements which, if unfriendly, are bracing; troubled skies and the shock and delight of a sudden parting of the clouds; the architecture of bare branches; long, curtain-drawn evenings... all these give rise to reflections. And the more I am present to the loneliness hidden in the darkness, the more that little gifts of awareness blossom.

T.S. Eliot, in his poem, The Journey of the Magi, explores these themes. An American who had grown up as a Unitarian, Eliot,in the year 1927, relinquished his American passport for a British one and converted to Anglo-Catholicism. He was, as if, born anew. In that same year he wrote his poem about the Magi, the Zoroastrian astrologers who visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. In the poem, Jesus is never mentioned. Instead we are drawn into an inner journey, a journey of saying goodbye to the old, of memory, regret, and of taking on the new, of death and birth, of relinquishing and accepting, of transformation.

As a Christmas present to all of you, here is Darris Golinski reading Eliot's poem. As always, Ismena seeks to create space for words by interweaving music, a sort of mutual illustration afforded by the merging of two art forms. Please enjoy. And accept our warmest wishes for a Happy Christmas.

The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.'

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.

I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this

Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like

Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

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