IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
Feedback: It’s the best Christmas present anyone can get (although Angel might prefer to Shanshu). Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please.
Rating: For anyone
Summary: People are singing carols, but is the clock ticking?
Angel walked through downtown Los Angeles. It was as though nothing had ever happened, as though his friends, his family, hadn’t bled and died for humanity. And that was how it should be.
Tinny carols tinkled out of shops as the very last of the last minute shoppers hurried in and out, laden with parcels and packages. Angel wasn’t shopping. After all, there was no one left to shop for. He was just walking. Feeling the press of humanity around him. Savouring it. Oh, not for the blood or the heartbeats, not this time. Just for the warmth of it. The companionship of other creatures going about their business. It was Christmas Eve. He knew he’d be alone tomorrow, but he didn’t want to be alone tonight.
He’d never celebrated Christmas as people today celebrated, not until he found faith with Buffy. As Angelus, he and his other family had always celebrated, of course, but not in a Christmassy way. And as Liam, well, he didn’t remember too much about the drinking-in-the-tavern part of the celebrations, but his memory of the frosty family Christmas was icy clear. No turkey, of course, no tree, and little in the way of gifts. No Brussels sprouts even, so there were at least some small mercies.
Throughout these musings, he hadn’t intended to go anywhere in particular, he just went where his feet took him. His feet took him to church, to a midnight service. Why not, he thought.
Being in a church was still difficult for him, and he wondered why. Angelus had had no problem at all with churches and convents, revelling in breaching the sanctity of such places. Perhaps it was his soul that found it overwhelming, with such a weight of sin to carry.
He found a place in a pew at the back, away from the rest of the congregation, but he joined in the singing. They were singing In The Bleak Midwinter.
In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, long ago.
There was no snow, outside, of course. This was California. No iron hard ground. No frosty, moaning wind. But they were all there, in his stone of a 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.
There wasn’t even that, for a vampire. All he could give was his blood and his pain. He’d got nothing left to pray for, for himself: no lover, no son, no hope of humanity, no salvation, and so he prayed for them. For all of them, whoever they were. For helpless humanity. The ones he tried to help each and every night, for no other reason than that they needed it.
Buffy sat in the church with Dawn and Andrew and Giles. Giles had come to Rome to be with them for Christmas, and that had made Buffy happy. It meant that she might get through the whole holiday without slaying Andrew, and that had to be a good thing. It had been Giles’ idea to come to the midnight carol service, and it had been a good one. It was years since she’d done this.
They’d sung Silent Night, and they’d sung O Little Town of Bethlehem, and now they were starting In the Bleak Midwinter. She felt tears come, and she blinked them back, hoping the others hadn’t noticed. Somehow, her heart was always in winter, even in the middle of family and friends. She’d thought for a long time that it was still a natural effect of being pulled out of Heaven, but now, she wondered about that. The ice around her heart had cracked, just a little, one night in early summer almost two years ago, when she’d been kissed. When she had, albeit briefly, basked once more in Angel.
Then they sang Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and she put her heart into the carol.
Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
When it came time to pray, she prayed for her Angel, that he might find mercy and healing, as so many other sinners did.
This was a village so poor that the children learned in a school room that was just a patch of dusty ground beneath the shade of a tree. Most of them didn’t even have pencil and paper. They certainly didn’t teach to set term times here, so, as soon as Christmas Day was over, the children were back under the tree. The teacher let them sing some carols. They loved the tunes, even those young ones who hadn’t yet learned the words.
They’d done the sombre In The Bleak Midwinter, because that had let her talk to them about ice and snow and frost, and water that was frozen. In their hot and dusty land, they found it impossible to comprehend that water could be so hard that even a man might walk on it.
And they’d done Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, because that had let her talk about the message of Christmas, so that amid the poverty and the disease and the sheer grind of life, these children might remember the threefold promise that it held. The birth of hope. A dark and bloody sacrifice to come, to wash away sin. And then resurrection, and eternal life.
And now they were singing Angels From The Realms Of Glory, their pure, high voices rising over the gentle hubbub of the village.
Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you; break your chains.
One child sat a little apart, a girl who was always silent and withdrawn. A strange child. Fey, although that wasn’t the word that the teacher thought of. As they sang the stanza about the repentance of sinners, the girl began to draw on the ground.
The teacher went over to see what she was doing. The half dozen symbols drawn in the dust were incomprehensible to her. She’d seen nothing like them before. All that she recognised were the two figures. The one at the end was just the stick figure of a man. The one at the beginning was a cone with a circle on top, two arms and a pair of wings. It was a child’s drawing of the angel on top of the plastic Christmas tree. The rest made no sense. The child ran a hand over them, and they were gone.
Each day after that, the little girl would draw the symbols and the figures and, although the teacher tried to write them down, she never could remember them. Symbols in the dust, but inscribed on an innocent heart and mind. The teacher wondered what it meant.
On Twelfth Night, as the others were taking down the ancient Christmas decorations, and carefully packing them away until next year, the child stopped drew her symbols and her stick figures for the last time. After that, it was as though she had never known them.
Words. Words have power. Words can wound; words can heal; words can be made into spells to enslave people, or into speeches that ignite the fires of freedom. Or into prophecies bearing gifts. Some people believe that it is an offence against nature to erase words. To burn books. And yet, who says that words have to be written, in order to be Words? And who says that prophecies have to be ancient in order to mean anything?
Prophecies can be new, with ink still wet behind the ears – they all were, once. And prophecies that are meant to come to fruition soon don’t have to be inscribed on stone or written on parchment. They can be written in sand, or in a child’s mind, and they will last just long enough. And that way, the Powers of Darkness can’t see them, and wipe them away.
1 In The Bleak Midwinter
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94)
Inspired by imagery in Milton, and with a tune by Gustav Holst.
2 Hark The Herald Angels Sing
Charles Wesley, in 1739
The initial tune for this was sombre, but in 1840, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. William H. Cummings adapted this to be a more uplifting tune for Wesley’s words.
3 Angels From The Realms Of Glory
James Montgomery (1771-1854)
Some of you know that I live in Sheffield (well, all of you do now). When I started this story, an hour ago, I had no idea that James Montgomery first published this carol in his Sheffield newspaper, the Iris, Christmas Eve, 1816. Amazing what you learn.