“Once in Royal David’s City
Stood a lowly cattle shed”.
I hold my breath. I always find myself holding my breath for the minute or so between the BBC Radio 4 announcer’s voice falling silent and the chorister getting to the end of his solo verse. An opening verse which, for many, marks the beginning of Christmas.
Will the treble make it smoothly across the four opening lines? Will his voice crack? Will he hesitate? Will he stumble and fall flat on one of the high notes?
“Mary was the Mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.”
He did it! As flawless and straight as a moonbeam, his voice floated up to the stone fan vaulting and caressed the stained-glass window panes.
On my table, the long, needle-sharp flame of the deep red Advent candle glows brighter as the light outside the windows slowly fades. The edges of the rooftops grow blurred beneath a sky gradually drained of daylight, across which pink-mottled clouds are gently propelled by the chilly wind.
A blackbird is skipping on the gravel driveway, emitting the odd chirp. It’s a commandeering, purposeful sound. A crow lands on a chimney top and caws, bobbing its head, calling out to its mate until the latter swoops down.
I notice the white fairy lights of our Christmas tree reflected in the window panes of the neighbours opposite us. Our Christmas tree, that is decorated in gold, silver and glass and, this year, a few deep red baubles.
In the distance, the Cathedral bells ring an invitation to the carol service within its Benedictine Norman walls.
It’s time to put the kettle on. I decide to use the white teapot with the blue and yellow flowers. The first teapot I ever bought, some thirty years ago, while doing my A-levels. It’s steeped in memories of afternoon teas and midnight discussions about cabbages and kings. Memories of stripy college scarves, 1980s haircuts and bicycles padlocked to lamp posts. Steeped in the youthful sense that nothing is impossible.
I spoon Earl Grey then dried rose petals, then pour in the boiling water. The aroma that wafts out is a blend of citrus and sensuality.
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is closing the broadcast with the customary “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.
I remember that yesterday, I bought some myrrh gum from the herb shop. I prepare the stone incense holder and the glowing-red charcoal disk, then drop a couple of myrrh grains into it. The rich, heady fragrance twists and twirls up then spreads through the room like a phantom creature. I close my eyes and breathe in its message. It soon becomes crystal clear that I’ve used too much myrrh. Its astringent smoke constricts my throat and I start coughing. I add some frankincense resin to mellow the concoction. Its comforting, familiar scent puts its arms around me like an old friend.
It’s Christmas Night. And the first night of Hanukkah. The two coincide for the first time in a hundred years. I choose to believe that it’s a happy sign. A sign of good things to come.
Happy Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Yuletide to you all!