I wonder what the editors of Scribner’s Monthly thought in the late nineteenth century when they received Christina Rossetti’s submission in response to their request for a “Christmas poem.”
I expect “In the bleak midwinter” might have come as a bit of a shock to editors who were likely hoping for a sweet sentimental baby Jesus meek and mild verse to lull their readers into the warm cozy glow of the Christmas season.
Instead Rossetti took a hard look at the realities of life and concluded that sometimes, life is more like a hard winter than a sweetly sleeping babe who, upon awaking, “no crying he makes.”
The reality is that there are times for all of us when our experience of life mirrors the first verse of Rossetti’s poem:
In the bleak mid-winter
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 mid-winter
The tragedy of course is that, in response to the often difficult and painful realities of life, we succumb to the temptation to become like this “bleak mid-winter.” We choose to allow our hearts to stand “hard as iron.” Slowly, our souls shrivel and become “like a stone.”
But Rossetti holds out another possibility. There can be another path in response to the brokenness and pain that are an unavoidable part of the human condition.
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.
Instead of choosing to harden and become “like a stone”, an alternative lies close at hand. No matter how difficult circumstances may be, we can give ourselves to love allowing our hearts to open to the mystery and beauty born in Jesus.
When I stop for a minute and put aside my reactivity and grasping, I discover that I can always choose to soften and open. I can turn towards my true nature. I can reconnect with that image in which I was created as a child of God. There is no power on earth strong enough to force me to become “like a stone.” I do not need to become “hard as iron.”
The true power that resides in every human being, is the power to open to the presence of love. It is the power that brought all creation into existence and that heals and restores even in the midst of the fragmentation and brokenness that so often seem to be the dominant forces in life.
Most of the musical versions of the Gustav Holst version of “In the bleak midwinter” have lost touch with the haunting melancholy of Rossetti’s words. Her poem set to music most commonly carries a sentimental, pretty lullaby feel which misses completely her awareness of the struggle and difficult that lie at the heart of the nativity. The musical versions of Rosetti’s hard words have been prettied up. They have lost their connection with the hard realities of life.
I asked some of the musical experts in my life for a more edgy version of “In The Bleak Midwinter” and they came up with these which are both beautiful contenders for a more authentic rendition of this extraordinary Christmas carol:
The Indigo Girls are a bit scratchy in this poor quality video, but they have great voices:
Here’s an imaginative reworking:
I don’t expect Christina Rossetti could ever have imagined this:
Any other suggestions gratefully received.
And it turns out I am not alone in my obsession with this powerful piece of Christmas music: