The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.”
This poem, written in 1915, is full of nostalgia for an older version of Christmas, with mysteries and legends that were already being dismissed and forgotten. 1915 was a time of war for British people, and it seems to me that Hardy’s poem carries a sense of longing for a simple, more innocent time. Add another hundred years that, and it seems even more removed from the Christmas we have now, where legends are based around must-see television adverts and the top-selling items in the shops. Walking past a well-known High street chemists today, I saw they were selling an Advent calendar that costs £40! Since when was this what Advent was about? Gifts are for Christmas Day, not the 24 days before it. When I was young, Advent calendars didn’t even have chocolates. Now they have become the norm, and it isn’t easy to find a traditional one with just pictures. Does this make me like the nostalgic narrator in Hardy’s poem, longing for some overlooked tradition, misremembering something that wasn’t quite as magical as it seemed. Where will we be in another hundred years? Will my children tell stories of Advent calendars that only had chocolates in them?
I could make some claim that my Advent stories are a way of fulfilling Hardy’s longing; a way of reliving a Christmas that used to be about sharing stories and didn’t come with an exorbitant price-tag. My stories are still free to download, and are a simple way to fill a reusable Advent calendar that I hope is more exciting and rewarding than any confectionary. I certainly think that when my children are adults, they will remember the stories and appreciate them more than long-forgotten chocolates. They may even carry on the tradition with their own families. If they did, my heart would burst with pride. A fair fancy indeed.
My Advent story this year was inspired by the poem. It too draws on the traditions of story telling, passed from generation to generation. The main character is a shepherd boy, hearing the legend for the first time, and ends with him vowing to tell the story to his own children, adding in his own experience of that magical night. It is my tribute to Thomas Hardy, but with a happy ending. If you can manage a west country accent whilst reading it out loud, all the better.