An Advent Note
Last Post of the Year

Merry Christmas

MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

--Hamlet, Act I Scene 1

"It" of course is the ghost of Hamlet's father. I once saw, or received, or sent, a Christmas card that had Marcellus's speech for text. That was a long time ago and I can't visualize the card very clearly, but I know it was very handsomely produced. The last line was firmly and permanently impressed upon my memory as a part of Christmas. Permanently, yes, but not with 100% accuracy: until I looked it up just now I thought it was "the time." Not a significant divergence, though.

And I had forgotten Horatio's response. That might be taken as a motto to be placed at the entrance of the modern age, or whatever you want to call the period that began a bit before Shakespeare's time, and which now seems to be ending, to be replaced by something which as yet has no agreed-upon name. For a long time that age, like Horatio, couldn't decide whether it was Christian or not. The decision seems to have been made now, culturally speaking, and the new age seems to be a considerably darker time than the capitalized version of that phrase promises. Still, so hallowed and so gracious is this time

Although I grew up on a cattle farm, I never heard the word "manger" in any context other than that of the Nativity scene. I imagined it as it's frequently depicted, a box or basket lined with straw as a makeshift bed, crude but cozy. I did not connect it with the trough from which our cattle ate. I was well into adulthood before I realized that it was exactly the same thing for which we used the term "feed trough" or just "trough,"  a feature of every stall in the barn into which I poured oats and whatever else I was told to give the cattle. There was nothing cozy about it. It was just a dusty wooden niche, a shelf with sides, attached to one wall of the stall, and when the stall's resident was dining somewhat dampened with bovine saliva. In his homily this morning Father Steve, maybe suspecting that many of us failed to appreciate just how mundane, how low, a thing a manger really is, emphasized it, using the word "trough" repeatedly. "And laid him in a trough" has a much different connotation, doesn't it? 

One of my favorite Christmas albums--and there aren't many--is A Tapestry of Carols by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. It's a very, very English folk rendition of a number of traditional carols,  also mostly very English (e.g "The Holly and the Ivy") and it's wonderful. But it isn't the only Christmas album they made. There's another, called Carols and Capers, as well as a compilation, A Christmas Caper, that draws from the other two. I listened to it today and was very surprised to hear what seems to be an African-American song, "Poor Little Jesus." It's a striking departure from their usual repertoire, and very beautiful, I think. 



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I suspect that had I been in that theater, I would have been sobbing by the end of the song. That is quite beautiful and powerful.

To me, and I think that perhaps for many people who were not raised on a cattle farm, manger and trough have exactly the same connotation.

The man who sold us this house said that there was a cattle pen in my front yard and they used to feed them off my porch.


Same connotation equally good or equally bad? Or neither?

I think Maddy is wiping away a couple of tears at the end of that song.

When I was a kid I, too, thought that "manger" meant a cradle-shaped wooden box found in a stable. This despite that fact that I knew the word in French ("mangeoire"), where the connection to eating is obvious. This city girl is consoled to learn that a farm boy did the same.

I'm glad to hear it. I only know a few words in French so I don't know how I came to know that "manger" means "eat" or something along that line. But I think that was part of what turned on the light: "oh yeah, the manger is just a feeding trough."

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