by Randy Petersen
One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is kind of a downer. The first stanza of “In the Bleak Mid-winter” paints a vivid picture of the cold, hard world that Jesus enters.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
As a writer, I love the bold simplicity of “snow on snow, snow on snow.” That is exactly how snow falls, isn’t it? “Water like a stone” is the common phenomenon of freezing, but here it’s a life-giving substance turned lifeless. With the most basic words, the poet puts us in a bleak world.
Christina Rossetti was already a well-known poet when she wrote this for an American magazine in 1872. (Nice to know, for this blog, that she was a “Christian Freelance Writer,” like us.) Her parents, emigres from Italy, had hobnobbed with England’s literati, until her father took sick. The family then struggled financially. Despite her own health problems—including a nervous breakdown at age 14—Christina was a prodigious poet in her teens. She regained the attention of the arts crowd, eventually publishing several books of poetry.
So, while she had some success, she also experienced a few “bleak mid-winters” along the way.
At this point, the fact-checkers among us are crying out, “But it wasn’t mid-winter! The fact that shepherds were tending their flocks by night suggests the spring season, before Passover. In the foothills of Judea at that time, there would be no snow on snow, snow on snow!”
Right. And the Bible never mentions a stable (just a manger) and the word for “inn” probably refers to the guest room in a house, so there was no innkeeper, and we don’t know how many magi showed up—maybe two, maybe twelve. Every December, we quibble with the Christmas story as it has been told through the centuries. Every generation seems to add a detail to fill out the biblical story. Early on, the magi got names and ethnic identities. One of the earliest English dramas we have, from medieval times, is “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” a clever farce about doubt and devotion. Later we got Good King Wenceslas, Santa, Rudolph, the Little Drummer Boy, an angel named Clarence, and poor Grandma getting run over.
Snow on snow. Snow on snow.
Despite our quibbles, Rossetti’s lyrics do what preachers have always done, applying essential truth to the current culture. It’s what poets do too. So maybe it wasn’t snowing on the shepherds, maybe it wasn’t a frozen world—physically. But is there any better way to describe humanity’s need for a Savior, then or now?
After the first stanza, the “bleak mid-winter” thaws out. Slowly. Gently. Rossetti keeps contrasting the angel throngs in heaven with the simple scene on earth, a mother cradling her child, kissing him. The water, once hard as stone, begins to trickle, bringing life to a needy world.
And the final verse brings it home, simply but powerfully.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.