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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM NAN HAWTHORNE
Nativity at the Grange
St. Mary’s Grange, Wessex, 984 AD
Last Nativity I allowed myself to stray abroad in the direction of the Grange, hoping for an invitation to spend this holy festival with Godwine and Aelfraed. The snow was thick on the fields, so I chanced that these two men would use the excuse of hard travel to remain by themselves rather than attend mid-winter mass in the town. I am afraid my claim of wandering in the storm was belied by the cask of Leofwen’s good ale that I offered to Godwine as, God be praised, he ushered me to the spot nearest the fire.
“But will not Goodwife Leofwen miss you and your music for the festival days, O’Quill?” Aelfraed asked as his partner took the cask to broach it and pour ale in three bowls. Aelfraed went to the fire pit and took a poker and placed it in the coals to heat.
“Aye, she will, but I knew the good lay brothers here would not mind a lonely Irishman taking advantage of their good cheer for one night. Something tells me there is much love in this cottage and in the dooryard.”
The two men looked at me astounded. I quickly added, so as not to discomfit them, “You two take such good care of your animals and crops.” I tried not to smile as their faces relaxed. Their secret was safe with me, and by so speaking I believe I revealed that I knew it but that was as far as my knowledge would travel.
Aelfraed took the poker from the fire as Godwine welcomed my visit fulsomely. The tip of the poker in each bowl warmed the ale, and as I took my first sip I noticed that the brother had added some festive spices. I toasted him with a raised bowl. “Nollaig Shona Duit!” I said.
Aelfraed took a seat on one of the other stools and asked me, “Is that how you say ‘Glad Geola’ in your language?”
While the taller lay brother took the third stool and sat, I replied, “Aye, as close to as matters. But I have heard few people here use the word ‘Yule’ or ‘Geola’ for the feast day.”
Aelfraed offered the explanation. “That is the old Saxon word for the mid-winter solstice, when the sun ceases its descent in the southern sky and begins its journey to mid-summer. It is a heathen celebration. We of the Church call it Nativity. How do you observe the holy day in Eire?””
I told them that as the Christian Church had long flourished in Eire, even when England was all but barbarous, that the old rites remained only in some remote regions, mostly in Connaught far to the west. Still we Irish know a good thing when we find it, so many of the traditions remain from those days before enlightenment and are redesigned to fit later knowledge.”
“It is the same for us, I think, for the people certainly do not spend the Nativity on their knees in frigid churches here either.” Godwine’s eyes sparkled as he smiled at his friend. There is much feasting, as you know, and both children and grown men and women play at games like leapfrog and blind man’s bluff. A very popular pastime is a communal bath, where men, women and children flock to old Roman thermae in the town to talk, eat, drink, and make merry all together in the hot scented water.”
I knew what he said was true, for I discovered the delights of this pastime in the past couple of years that I have been at Wintonceaster. Though the humid air in the bath is not good for my harp, I like to play it first and thereafter share some of the songs of my own countrymen.
“Are you permitted the pleasure of the communal bath?” I hazarded.
The two men looked at each other and laughed. “Oh no, good sir, our abbess would be most displeased to see even her lay servants participate in what she calls such immorality and licentiousness!” Godwine replied with emphasis.
“What about when you are here alone?” I pursued.
More subdued, Aelfraed told me, “We do not have a tub large enough, so in winter we simply bathe as best we can by the fire. “
“But in summer we can go to the pond and swim with the ducks!” his partner said happily.
We sat in companionable silence for some time, enjoying the spiced ale and the hot fire. Then Godwine stood and reached for our bowls. “My dear,” he addressed Aelfraed, why do you not go and see to the comfort of the animals and I shall set out bread and soup for our supper?”
“Get your cloak, O’Quill, and come with me,” Aelfraed said, getting up and heading to where his own simple cloak hung on a nail.
I followed him out into the blowing snow and across the small dooryard to the byre. It was warm inside for the animals are warm blooded and heat the space with their breath and their dung. I saw how the donkey, the few sheep and the chickens and ducks crowded up to the lay brother as he reached into bins against the wall for their food. I myself went to the donkey and greeted him, “Well met, Master Baalam,” I said. He pushed up his nose to snuffle my hair. When I reached to stroke his neck he moved his head so he could root in my hand. “Nay, venerable fellow, I am not the one with your supper.”
Aelfraed chuckled as he brought over a bag of the donkey’s food and fitted it over his nose and mouth and looped over his ears.
“Hmmm,” I considered, “I wonder if I could make a wineskin that would fit on me like that.”
“Would that not get in the way of singing?” the lay brother asked, and then went on in a merry tone, “Or whatever it is you do with the pretty women?” I looked at him and saw him wink.
Just as we went back out of the byre I heard him call to the animals, “Never fear, we will be back with you tonight for your Nativity Mass.” I looked at him curiously, but his face was covered with the sides of his deep cowl so I could not see if he was laughing at me.
The meal was simple, hot and nourishing, with a soup of stored vegetables and whole grain. We ate big hunks of brown coarse bread but with the crown of some thick honey from the grange’s hives. At their bidding, I took up my harp and sang songs of the season in both Gaelic and English. Then Aelfraed said, “It is late enough, my dears. Shall we go celebrate the birth of our Lord?”
I thought, “Now this is when I will see what he meant before. We took up our cloaks, and Godwine fetched the wooden cross from the wall. We went out into the night to see the clouds had cleared and the stars were so sharply bright it almost hurt the eyes. It was more bitterly cold. The warmth of the byre was even more noticeable after the chill blast.
I knew immediately what the plan was, for Godwine and Aelfraed busied themselves getting everything in order for some sort of ritual. One hung the cross on the wall on a nail provided for the purpose. The other, who had brought a small horn lantern, set it on a table he pulled to the space between where each animal was housed. I took a seat on a manger, taking note of the fact that Jesu lay in just such a rude bed. I listened quietly as the two men spoke in Latin over the table.
“Do you do this often?” I asked when they had finished and taken a stool each.
“Where more fitting to celebrate the Nativity than with our beasts?” Godwine beamed with happiness.
I glanced around at these beasts. Baalam the donkey stood with his head over the gate of his stall. The sheep huddled together, some standing and some with their legs tucked under themselves for warmth. The ducks gathered in their nesting boxes and the chickens roosted all snuggled up together. I saw the cat they called Duckie slip in through the side of the roost and come over to jump into Aelfraed’s lap for a long chin scratch.
The two men began to sing the mass in Latin. They were not priests, nor even monks, but just lay brothers but they sang the mass with all the devotion and joy of a choir in the great Minster. Their eyes shown as they shared the music with the creatures that resided in the byre. I picked out the melodies of the many chants on my harp.
I took care to act as though I was sound asleep and snoring before my two hosts crawled under the blankets on their own palette. I wanted to afford them the privacy of a shared moment, something I knew they must live out here, isolated from their fellow men, in order to have without rebuke. I was rewarded by over hearing the sound of contentment in their goodnights and thought I heard a quiet sigh at the conclusion of a kiss as they hunkered down for warmth.
Indeed God is Love whenever such love is present, whether for one’s fellow man, the beasts, or someone whose heart you hold dear.
Nan Hawthorne is a historical novelist specializing in the early middle Ages. Her first novel, An Involuntary King, is a saga of love and war inn a fictional 8th century English kingdom. Her second, currently in the loop for publication, working title Beloved Pilgrim, concerns a young woman disguises herself as her own late twin brother in order to fight in the Crusades and finds love with a Turkish woman amidst the desperation and death. The story published here is taken from Alehouse Tales, and is one of two dozen plus stories illustrating daily life in late tenth century Saxon England. Publication is set for this coming spring. To keep abreast of Hawthorne’s books, visit www.nanhawthorne.com .
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