In the bleak midwinter: Janet Wooton

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Public Domain

Tune: CRANHAM, Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934)
Public Domain

Janet Wootton
Janet Wootton

This may seem an odd choice of hymn for July! But the global pandemic has made us all aware that we share this world and its seasons. We may fear that the coming of winter may mean the return of the virus. But the present situation has opened our eyes to broader issues: the injustices of our world, and the possibility of a climate changed out of all recognition.

I fell in love with this hymn, with its exotically named author, and breathtakingly rich language and imagery, from a very early age, in the four verse version included in Congregational Praise (London: Independent Press, 1951), set to Gustsav Holst’s CRANHAM.

It started in a place I knew very well.

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,
Long ago.

For a few of my early years, we lived in a caravan in a field of cows, where winters were bleak indeed! The earth, rutted and pitted by their hooves, was hard as iron, and painful to walk on. And the water, lying deep in the hoofprints, was stony and treacherous.

But then the hymn soars to amazing heights.

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.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throngèd the air:
But only his mother,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

I still have that vivid visual image of the cherubim and seraphim thronging the air.

And the last verse was fabulous. Yes, I wanted to give my all, give my heart.

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.

So the hymn was there in my psyche, part of my identity. And it and I embarked on a lifetime’s exploration together.

I started to get involved in global issues, through mission and international agencies. As I travelled and met people, I learnt how incongruous the association between a European winter and the birth of Christ sounded in a global context. ‘In the bleak midwinter’ became a byword for the early mission movement’s cultural arrogance.

What did it mean in countries where snow and ice were unknown, and Christmas came at midsummer. The gospel went along with Western norms of behaviour, under the guise of ‘civilisation’ – an easy assumption of white superiority, whose consequences we are still living with today.

But I was also a lifelong feminist, and I was amazed and delighted when I got acquainted with the third verse, missing from Congregational Praise, which is a bit realistic!

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

A breastful of milk! No wonder that didn’t make it into the popular carol! Erik Routley famously refers to it as ‘one slightly embarrassing line’ (Erik Routley, The English Carol, London: Herbert Jenkins, 1958, p. 187), and it was amended for Harold Darke’s 1911 setting to, ‘a heart full of mirth and a manger-full of hay’. I chuckled at Routley’s coyness, and began to explore the place of Mary in the hymn.

It’s not unusual to find the figure of the Madonna and child at the heart of a Christmas carol. But the constant shifting between high heaven and cold stable, in the middle verses, strips the nativity scene of its nineteenth-century sentimentality. The earthly scene is ‘bleak’ (the word occurs three times). And at its heart is a real-life woman, described in what must have been quite startling language even in its day, as offering the breast to her newborn child.

Finally, researching for my book on women’s hymnwriting (Janet Wootton, This is our Song, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), I met Christina Georgina Rossetti, whom I felt I had known all my life. A poet of considerable standing, publishing in English and Italian, she wrote the powerful ‘Goblin Market’, with its depiction of a female Saviour. She was actively involved in the social issues of her time, and intelligently engaged with the Church and its doctrine.

We can still take strength from her hymn, in all its complexity. We can still believe that the one whom cherubim worship night and day chooses to be with us in the bleakness of life. And the ending still offers inspiration and challenge.

Take those last two lines now, and spend some time praying through them.

Yet what I can I give him:
Give my heart.

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