Like most people, our family has many Christmas traditions. Some of them go back forever, and some are more recent.
One thing that I always do at this time of year is to get out my battered copy of Susan Cooper's book The Dark Is Rising, and re-read it once more. All the action is set between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, and it really sets me up for the festive season. It is a beautifully written fantasy about the long struggle between the Old Ones of the Light and the Lords of the Dark, on which hangs the fate of our human world. The King Arthur legend gets mixed up in it too - the oldest of the Old Ones is Merriman Lyon (Merlin) and the hero of the books, Will Stanton, ultimately comes to serve Arthur's son, Bran. There are five books in the sequence, but The Dark Is Rising is my favourite.
There is a wonderful description of the magic of Christmas in the book, which reminds me of my own childhood Christmasses, which we have tried to re-create for our own children:
"Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in a corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that. Ageless, familiar Christmas music permeated the house whenever anyone turned on the radio. The television set was never turned on at all; it had become, for this season, an irrelevance."
Later on in the day, they decorate the Christmas tree: "Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.
There were other treasures, then. Little gold stars and circles of plaited straw; swinging silver-paper bells. Next, a medley of decorations made by assorted Stanton children, ranging from Will's infant pipe-cleaner reindeer to a beautiful filigree cross that Max had fashioned out of copper wire in his first year at art school. Then there were strings of tinsel to be draped across any space, and then the box was empty."
The whole book is beautifully written, and very exciting. In the end, of course, Will Stanton, the Sign-seeker, achieves the first part of his quest, and the rest of the story unfolds in the next three books. The central theme is the fact that the forces of the Dark are preparing for a second great rising, and the Old Ones of the Light must prevent it from happening. It is a battle between good and evil, in the most fundamental way. In a later book, The Grey King, one of the human protagonists, John Rowlands, comments:
"Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun. At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of everything else. ... At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe."
We, unlike the Old Ones, are fully human. So we must be concerned with humanity and mercy and charity and compassion, for they are the true meaning of Christmas.
Wishing you every happiness this Christmas, and for the coming year.