On the ninth day of Christmas, apparently, someone’s true love once gave them nine ladies dancing. Impractical though this is as a Christmas present (not to mention hard to wrap), it suits today’s carol well: the majestic “In dulci jubilo”, set by the seventeenth-century German Lutheran composer Michael Praetorius. The story of the text, originally written by 13th-century German mystic Heinrich Suso, is a story of dancing being brought into the midst of grief. According to the (auto?)biography of Suso, The Life of the Servant, Suso was told by an angel to stop the intense mortifications that he was practising and instead to join the angels in their dance: “Now this same angel came up to the Servant [Suso] brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth [angel] began a joyous song about the infant Jesus, which runs thus: ‘In dulci jubilo’, etc.” It may or may not be a true story (more about the fascinating life of Suso can be read here), but the f
act remains that a man known for his austere ascetic practices also gave the medieval church one of its most joyful hymns. Today’s poem is inspired by Suso and the angel’s words.
Join the dancing
Angels dance around the stall.
Sing! Sing! One and all.
Come to earth, enthroned in hay,
sleeps the shining, living Day.
Leave your grieving songs, your weeping.
Dance, dance, with angels leaping.
Though the darkness now may linger,
Heaven dwells within a manger.
Cast off your ashes and your sackcloth.
The king is resting in a food trough.
Nothing now can snuff his light.
Sing, dance, with all your might.
As well as being the day when my true love sent me three French hens, the third day of Christmas traditionally remembers St John the Evangelist, who contrasts with Stephen the martyr for being the only one of the apostles not be martyred. He also saw the glories ahead revealed to him when imprisoned for following Jesus, and was perhaps the best theologian of the Incarnation in the New Testament. Today’s poem takes as its inspiration an old Gregorian chant for the Feast of St John, as well as the reading for the day, 1 John 1:1-4.
On the Lord’s Day, in rapture,
the beloved disciple
beheld Him in glory
who once walked beside Him.
And did he recognise Him,
that beloved disciple?
So changed into glory
was this one like a brother.
Now a glorious saviour,
that disciple’s Beloved
called the prisoned to rapture,
in renewing of all things.
Did he think of the meals shared,
that beloved disciple?
Did he think of the dust and
the waters of washing?
Remember the glories,
O beloved disciples,
When walking where Christ trod,
When fading, no rapture.
the eyes that beheld Him.
Await His swift coming;
tune ears to His feet.
Nothing says summer like this:
Renaissance minstrel piped through tinny speakers,
musicbox-like, rotating through sleepy street,
a call for ice-cream from a roaming van,
suburban icon, half-sinister, half-sweet.
To us in the south it seems fitting that the tune
should be used too for carols:
“What Child is This?” and another I don’t know,
“Now that the old year is fled”.
Who is the lady Greensleeves? Apocryphal stories clash with tradition;
promiscuity, Henry VIII wooing his distant Anne,
sleeves to reflect the moral state…
Into such as this, the child steps;
if today, would Mr Whippy have heralded Him,
as he lay down in our real estate?
Would summer celebrators have briefly paused
to laud the newborn king?
Now that our year is nearly fled,
we lie to rest but wake instead
to a summer, blazing bright away
and nothing more to fill our stockings.
As the green grass casts us away,
that the child-king might be found amongst us.
For most people, Christmas is now over. The supermarkets are already stocking hot cross buns. But in the traditional church calendar, today is the last day of the season of Christmas – a season lasting twelve days, as we remember in the old song. Why remember Christmas for twelve days instead of one? If nothing else, it gives us a chance to think about what it really means, once the distractions have died down, and to look more closely at what comes next in the story.
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
Tradition says to put away the tree,
Though yours perhaps has already come down,
The children sullen, home a new-year frown,
And resolutions stowed in the pantry.
“Back to work,” you say. And in the streets
The same straight-fixéd gazes all around,
Ear-buds containing every inward sound. My-true-love-sent-to-me, pit-pat your feet.
Perhaps you’ve still some toys to play with, or
There’s thank-you letters now for kids to start.
Yet on the twelfth day, Jesus still grew strong
And Mary treasured all things in her heart;
And stars still blazed for those who journeyed on,
Not numbed like us who know the yearly score.