Silent night, hopeful night Why Christmas Eve is the most magical time of year
IF you make a wish this Christmas Eve, you will be following in a tradition that dates back thousands of years, and perhaps far longer. The dreams invested in the stars drifting silently above our distant ancestors would not, of course, have involved gifts, stockings or fervent hopes that the turkey might have defrosted by morning. Go back far enough and they wouldn’t even have been connected to Christ’s birth, whose anniversary wasn’t fixed in late December until around 350AD.
Wishing, however, appears to have been integral to the pagan celebrations that predated Christmas in the northern hemisphere. And the most fervent hope of all at this darkest point in the calendar was probably simply that spring, and light, would return.
In these street-lit, centrally heated times, it’s hard to imagine how hard life must have been during long, dark months when even candles were scarce commodities and death from flu, starvation or hypothermia was never far away. The heartfelt yearning for light is reflected in the peculiar traditions that continue to be observed, albeit in a slightly different form, on Christmas Eve.
Coming a few days after the winter solstice (which this year fell last night), December 24 isn’t a public holiday, yet it contains more magic and portent than any of the festival’s 12 official days.
On any other day of the year, the poem continues, few would entertain the notion that a shed full of cattle might kneel down on the straw in an agrarian echo of the Nativity. But on this particular night, nobody doubts it and if someone invited the poet to witness the scene, “I should go