This morning when I went out to put seed in the bird-feeder, I walked across the patio through a skiff of snow. The evergreens were frosted with it. And the chestnut-backed chickadees were loud as they darted around my hands as I tipped the seed into the silo, one of them resting for a second on my knuckle. For a moment I was in an ancient carol, one set in a bright forest, a chorus of birds singing as sweetly as music.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Inside the fire was warm. The basket of panforte was still on the counter, wrapped and festive, ready for the Christmas bags we will give to friends. The first time I had panforte was in the city of its origin, Siena, and I was so poor, I remember, that I bought a little round of it and ate it on a bench in the Piazza del campo, unable to even afford a cup of espresso to have with it. But the panforte, or strong bread, was enough. Dense with nuts and dried fruit and with a nose-twisting whiff of white pepper, it was everything I’d come to Europe for, or at least it seemed that way at the moment. Imagine her, a girl in tattered corduroys, still tanned from the months she’d spent on Crete, biting into that rich cake. (Her Christmas that year was spent in a bare hotel room, with a parcel collected from Poste Restante in Rome.)
The past is with me constantly these days, these months. The future is so uncertain. We are entering yet another wave of Covid infection, maybe the worst yet. When friends came to lunch a few weeks ago, we planned to resume our traditional New Years gathering, put on hold last year, and even the year before, before the pandemic, because John and I had returned from Christmas in Ottawa with such a terrible bug and knew we couldn’t risk infecting our friends. (On the plane, I’d sat next to a man travelling to Ottawa from Australia, with stops in various places in south-east Asia because of his work, and he was so charming that we talked the whole trip from Vancouver to Ottawa. Later, when the first Covid infections began to make the news, I wondered whether he might have been unknowingly infected because I remember I spent a week in bed with terrible respiratory problems, a fever, aches and pains, a cough that completely exhausted me day and night.) All this to say that our New Years Eves have been very quiet, as was last Christmas. And now we’re being advised to restrict our interactions with others. Put the carols on the player and listen, listen, to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, at least 1200 years old:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
So I think of the past, the days of long dinners at the table laid with beautiful cloths, candlelight, glasses clinking together as we celebrated birthdays, Christmas, the arrival of a new year in the shadow of the old. The other morning I toasted almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, chopped figs and orange peel I’d candied a few days earlier, warmed honey and sugar, measured cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg, cloves, and white pepper, and mixed them all together for panforte.
I’m not a Christian. But at this time of year, I love the old carols, filled with birds and stars and hope. I love the oldest ones best of all, the ones that draw strands from times before Christianity and use them to weave such rich and moving accompaniments to this season. The Corpus Christi Carol, for example, with its echoes of the Grail story (no finer version than this Britten setting, sung by the marvellous Janet Baker):
He bore him up, he bore him down,
He bore him into an orchard brown.
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.
I offer ancient carols, chilly in the winter air, and slivers of dark panforte, with sherry in the Waterford glasses, and hope that the coming year is somehow easier for all of us than the last two have been.