Hitchens: And Thy Years Shall not Fail
Because it is still Christmastide, we reproduce this posting from the blog of Peter Hitchens.
And Thy Years Shall not Fail – a Christmas Reflection
First of all may I thank the hundreds of people who have contacted me to express sympathy on the death of my brother. I have tried to reply to as many such messages as I can, but it is physically impossible to answer them all in a reasonable time. So may I say to all of you who took the trouble to write, that I am very grateful that you did so, and am comforted by what you said. This applies perhaps most especially to those who wrote to me across great gulfs of disagreement. Civility between opponents is a light in the darkness, a recognition that we are all more united, as humans, than we are divided as supporters of causes or believers in faiths.
I shall once again be travelling during the next few days, so this is my last chance to write here until after the Feast of the Nativity. The Mail on Sunday will not be appearing on Sunday because it is Christmas Day, so there will be no column that week.
This will be a long gap, and during the brief period of peace in the storm of life, which I hope Christmas will be, I thought I would try to explain why for me, and for many others I suspect, this is such a precious season.
Of course, like most children in countries where Christmas is celebrated, I was from my earliest childhood thrilled by the promise of presents, the exhilarating, intoxicating smell of the pine tree in the house, the rich foods and the feeling that this was above all others a special time of year.
I cannot remember (and for the sake of Mr ‘Bunker’ I am sorry about this) ever being particularly enthused about Father Christmas. Perhaps this is the fault of my father, who could be wonderfully unsentimental about his children, forgetting our names even though there were only two of us and he had presumably helped to choose them, referring to us as ‘that boy’ and ‘that wretched boy’ (these titles were interchangeable, depending on our most recent crimes and misdemeanours). There is also a superb passage in my brother’s memoir ‘Hitch-22’ in which he records trying to strike up a conversation with our father one breakfast time. The head of the Hitchens family blasphemed briefly before growling ’It’ll be family prayers next’, and returning to a bloodshot examination of the Daily Telegraph. Many years of shipboard wardroom breakfasts, conducted in grumpy silence as the ship pitched and rolled and the plates slid this way and that, had left him hopelessly unprepared for domesticity. I have no recollection whatever of him attempting to impersonate Father Christmas.
In fact I much preferred the weeks before Christmas, the strange light in the sky (the melodramatic, suspenseful nature of late December English weather is perfectly described in John Masefield’s enchanting book ‘The Box of Delights’), the carol singing, the stirring of the pudding (the Church of England has now abolished ‘Stir-Up Sunday’, in its incessant effort to get rid of everything about the Church that anybody actually likes. The prayer for that day contains an exhortation to ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’ and refers to ‘plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works’, and that Sunday, a month before Christmas, was also in many homes the traditional date for stirring of puddings. I have never been sure if this is an accident, or a light-hearted insertion by a jolly Bishop centuries ago).
And, as a boarding school child, there was the long clattering train journey home behind a snorting steam engine (F. Scott Fitzgerald, in one of his short stories1, don’t ask me which, is the only author I know of who has been able to reproduce the excitement of such a land voyage at this time of year. I suspect he quite liked trains. He is buried, perhaps irrelevantly, perhaps not, in a small graveyard in Rockville, Maryland, very close to the railway line which runs from Washington DC to Chicago, within earshot of the evocative moaning hooters of the huge American locomotives. It was only when I visited his modest tomb that I realised that his full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, and that he had been called after the author of the US national anthem).
So for me the season is one of darkness illuminated with carols sung by lamplight, the sun low in the sky, and a promise, never entirely fulfilled on the day itself, of something wonderful to come. That sticks, when all else falls away.
It is only more recently, when it has become (as it wasn’t in my childhood home, though we got plenty of religion at school) an occasion for churchgoing that I have been captivated by the extraordinary, disturbing beauty of the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for ‘the Birth-day of Christ, commonly called Christmas Day’ as prescribed in the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. If you are really fortunate, you may be able to find a church where these passages are read at midnight on Christmas Eve. Listen carefully, if you do. It may not be long before this lovely ceremony is entirely stamped out by modernising fanatics. You could be one of the last to hear it.
The Gospel is the soaring, fiery declaration from the opening of St John’s Gospel – ending with ‘and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of his father, full of grace and truth’.
But the Epistle, that of St Paul to the Hebrews, borrows from something much older, the 102nd Psalm, when it draws itself up at the end to declare this promise: ‘And thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands. They shall perish: but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment: and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail’.
Now, I know there are plenty of readers here who find this sort of thing meaningless or actively repellent, and who could not imagine themselves taking it seriously or taking part in the ceremony which follows.
But I ask them, at this season, to set aside their scorn and their reductionist belief that the universe is no more than the sum of its parts. And to try reading these words out loud with an open mind and seeing if their poetry does not catch them somewhere deep inside. The dead are very present in our minds at Christmas (as A.S. Byatt rightly remarks in the extraordinary quartet of books that begins with ‘the Virgin in the Garden’ ) and the past so close around us that you can almost touch it. There is no moment at which the fierce, all-consuming passage of time is felt so clearly.
Is everything that is gone lost forever? Or does it continue to exist in eternity? Well, as with all things, you may choose. But if you choose to hope that our small, squabbling lives have some greater meaning and purpose than we can at first see, then the words ‘Thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail’ seem to me to be so full of meaning (and themselves so very old that their mere survival is in itself astonishing) that they are enough to make anyone tremble.
Well, that’s it. I think Christmas is a religious festival, and pointless without religion. But I wish you all, even the unbelievers, a peaceful and blessed Nativity, safe and warm amid the blast and tumult of our tottering civilisation.
1. I believe that Hitchens is thinking of the following passage, which falls near the end of The Great Gatsby. I have always loved it as well:
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
That’s my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 136–37.