Monday, 22 December 2014


I'm just back from a week in Oslo.  In the days leading up to the solstice there were candles on almost every available flat surface, indoors and out, willing the sun to return and lengthen those precious few hours of Norwegian daylight.

There were many Christmas trees, bringing the ever-green inside.  At the Askershus Fortress (little changed from the time of King Christian IV, one of the main characters of Rose Tremain's Music and Silence) I visited the excellent Resistance Museum which reminded me that each year Norway provides the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree in memory and gratitude for Britain's support during the Second World War.

Several buildings had little sheaves of oats hung outside their front doors or tied to gateposts.  This is the Julenek, an old custom of giving a gift to the birds at Christmas (perhaps its origins lie in an offering to Odin or a pagan fertility symbol).  The birds were certainly grateful - small flocks of finches clustered like bees on the sheaves and any seeds knocked to the ground were quickly snapped up by the hooded crows which patrol the streets and parks of Oslo in their sleek grey and black uniforms like a supernumerary police force.

Christmas customs blur into the past, age-old folk traditions morphed into Christmas celebration.  My Christmas poem this year takes a line from a carol as its starting point - "The running of the deer" from The Holly and the Ivy.  Deer are part of our Christmas iconography - think: Christmas card of snowbound landscape, deer venturing out from small copse and in the distance village with church; then add a sprinkling of glitter.

Why deer?  (not the reindeer of Santa Claus - a relatively recent invention popularised in the 19th century by Clement C Moore's "The Night before Christmas").  In winter the deer's normally effective brown/grey camouflage is blown and they stand out against the snow.  Perhaps hunger makes them more adventurous in seeking food.  "Our hunting fathers" would have been out on the chase at this time of year.  The medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is structured round a series of hunts, deer being the quarry of the first hunt, a noble prey symbolising Gawain's initial innocence and purity.  Deer have a good press in the Bible - in the psalms they are an image of piety and devotion: "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God" (Psalm 42:1).  The stag has been portrayed as a symbol of Christ trampling the devil.  Shakespeare in As You Like It alludes to a pagan symbolism in the Forest of Arden:

Jaques Which is he that killed the deer?
First Lord Sir, it was I.
Jaques Let's present him to the Duke like a Roman conqueror; and it would do well to set the deer's horns upon his head for a branch of victory.

And they all sing lustily "What shall he have that kill'd the deer?" (As You Like It Act IV scene 2).  It takes me back to the village where I grew up in the real Forest of Arden (or what is left of it) - the village had a great singing tradition and each Christmas we sang a wide variety of carols, some of them fairly obviously adapting pagan customs for Christian purposes.

A couple of years ago on my after-Christmas-dinner dog walk I startled three roe deer on the field path along the ridge. Roe deer are the secret inhabitants of the Cumbrian countryside where I live.  An encounter with them is always a special moment. 

“And the running of the deer”

  The deer come like memories –
  unbidden, tentative,
  on the edge of sight,

  grey-brown shadows slipping
  through the glittering frost –
  winter’s grace, heart’s leap.                                                       

 © Mary Robinson 2014

Happy Christmas!

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