Christmas in a village is best. In a village flooded by bright stars and dusted with snow and silence.
I grew up in one and it’s here that every Christmas Eve with stockings set, family safe and a warm bed calling, that I still wish I was, instead, heading out with the Mellstock Quire from Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, who from time immemorial have beaten the bounds of their village during the first four hours of Christmas morning, singing and playing in sweet harmony at the door of every house and cottage. I can see them winding wisps of hay around their ankles to keep out the frost, see their breath in the winter air, hear them tune their instruments before they bid their families goodnight, lift the latch, and head out into the darkness. Oh to be with them!
They gather shortly after ten at the tranter’s cottage, young men and old, grandfathers and sons, brothers and friends one by one coming out of the cold to argue over which songs they should sing and taper their lanterns. The routine is set, but the excitement is palpable. The thrill of sacrificing sleep to a communal act of kindness and hope. The same stories are told, the same hands warmed, the same last minute instructions issued, the same route agreed and in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the thrill, the anticipation, the cider glow, a director’s note as subtle and beautiful as Hamlet’s advice to the players: “keep from making a great scuffle on the ground when we go in at people’s gates; but go quietly, so as to strike up all of a sudden, like spirits.”
It matters not to the Quire whether they receive welcome or not, theirs is a sacred act holding the village safe and blessed before the dawn on this the most holiest of days. It is simultaneously a Christian duty and a pagan worship, a restoration of the good that Christmas might bring. Somewhere they know this, for we know it, but the talk as they criss cross through the fields and feel their way carefully around the hidden tree roots on the wooded footpaths is in remembrance of previous nights, of how different instruments perform in the cold and whether or not they’re truly needed any more.
And when they’re done, having failed to rouse a living soul at their final destination, the leader brings the show to an end.
‘In a clear loud voice, as he had said in the village at that hour and season for the previous forty years —“A merry Christmas to ye!
(1872). Chosen by Mark Griffin