Silent night, hope­ful night Why Christ­mas Eve is the most mag­i­cal time of year

The Herald Magazine - - 7 -

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

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