Christmas Eve service

This service was conducted by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the homily below is a reading text. The actual homily as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Homily copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

Readings

After the death of Jesus, his followers mourned the loss of their teacher and spiritual leader. And they felt that such a great human being must have been predicted by the prophets and sages of the distant past. They knew the great prophet Isaiah had predicted that, one day, a great leader would be born who would rule the people of Israel in justice and peace; and so these words from the book of Isaiah have become associated with the birth of Jesus:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever…. [King James Version, Isaiah 9.2, 4, 6-7]

A lighted flame in a chalice has become a symbol of Unitarians and Universalists around the world. As we light the flame in this chalice tonight, we do so in the consciousness that our religious tradition springs from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

So it is that we tell the story of Jesus’s birth each year. Here is the story as it is told in the book of Matthew:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 1.18-21]

But a different version of the story of Jesus’s birth appears in the book of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger [or feeding trough], because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see —- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger [feeding trough].” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. [NRSV, Luke 2.1-20]

Now we have to go back to the book of Matthew to find out what happened in the days immediately after Jesus was born:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to rule my people Israel.” ‘

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. [NRSV, Matthew 2.1-12]

Christmas Eve Homily

I don’t know if you ever noticed, but there are two quite different stories about the birth of Jesus. On the one hand, the story in the book of Luke tells us about how there was no room at the inn, and the manger, the shepherds, and the angels. The story in the book of Matthew, on the other hand, says nothing about a manger or a stable, and in fact calls the place where Jesus was born a “house.” But it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi, whatever “magi” might be. There are at least three other complete books that purport to tell the story of Jesus — the books of Mark, John, and Thomas — but Mark and Thomas start with Jesus as an adult, and John gives us a short and mysterious paragraph about word and God and light.

The fact of the matter is that we know precious little about the birth and early life of Jesus. It would be slightly easier for us if we said that the Bible is the literal and incontrovertible word of God: then we’d know for certain that there were angels who spoke to shepherds, and a long journey to Bethlehem, and magi from the East (whatever “magi” might be). Of course, if the Bible were the literal and incontrovertible word of God, we could ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies that occur between the different stories about birth and life of Jesus.

Since we do not take the Bible literally and incontrovertibly, at Christmas time we find ourselves in the realm of myth and enchantment; I would say, we find ourselves in the realm of poetry. A poem can be just as true as a mathematical equation, or just as true as a scientifically proven natural law; but it is true in a different way; not literally true, but true in its allusions and connections and resonances.

This year, I have been thinking about the magi, those mysterious visitors from the East. (By the way, nowhere does it say that there were only three of them.) Magi comes from the ancient Greek word “magoi,” which means astrologer or wise men. I wonder if they were actually all men, or if we just assume that they were? I wonder, if they were astrologers, did they try to predict the future life of the new baby they came to visit? –and how accurate were their predictions? I wonder where they came from in the East? –from Persia, from Baghdad, from India? I wonder what religion they followed –Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, paganism? I wonder, but there is simply no way to know for sure.

But the poetic truth of that moment when the magi finally arrive:– the star that they have been following stand directly over the house where the newborn baby lies, watched over by his mother and father — the poetry, for me, lies in this passage:

The magi “were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

We should all kneel down to pay homage when we see a new-born baby. Any baby is a miracle: a new life that has come into being, a new bit of humanity to be loved and cherished, and to offer love in return. Every time a baby is born, the human stock of love is increased by the love contained in that tiny body. What could be more miraculous? We can offer no other response than to be overwhelmed with joy.

And then the magi open up their treasure chests, and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why did they give those three things? They gave gold because the crown of the king of Israel was fashioned from gold; and frankincense and myrrh were used in the oils for anointing kings. These astrologers seem to be predicting that Jesus would be a new king of Israel. So there is a very specific, technical meaning for the gifts the magi brought.

But as with any good poetry, we can find layers of meaning. For someone living in the land of Judea in the first century Roman Empire, gold and frankincense and myrrh might have very specific meanings relating to the longing for a king, a leader, to deliver the land of Israel from Roman oppression. For us today, living in a post-Christian, globalized world, those old meanings have only a faint resonance; but we can resonate with the deeper levels of meaning in the giving of gifts.

We can understand that the magi gave gifts to that baby, because that baby represented new life and love. We can understand that we give gifts today for the same deep reason. When you or I give a gift to someone else, we are first of all acknowledging that person’s essential humanity; and although we might not express it that way, we are also extending a little bit of love to that person.

If you exchange gifts tomorrow, I hope you will think of this poetic meaning of Christmas gift-giving. To give a gift to another person is a metaphor for extending a little bit of love to that person; and so symbolically, poetically, to exchange gifts is to add to the store of the world’s love. And it isn’t necessary to give an actual physical object, you know; you can give the gift of a kind word, or a hug, or a smile, and it does the same thing.

Let me put this another way. When Jesus grew up, he taught that the most important thing in the world is to love your neighbor as yourself. This is a truth that Jesus got from his Jewish heritage, and passed on to the wider world. This is the poetic truth that is embodied in the simple act of giving gifts: to love and value other people as you would be loved and valued by them.

The 2006 No-rehearsal Christmas pageant

The “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant” is borrowed from Rev. Jory Agate of First Parish in Cambridge, and she got it from someone else; to the best of our knowledge, it is in the public domain. This version is rewritten and modified by Rev. Dan Harper for use at First Unitarian in New Bedford. The story about Hannukah is also in the public domain.

Readings

The first reading this morning is from the Hebrew scriptures, words written by the prophet Isaiah. Early Christians interpreted this passage as a prediction of the coming of the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth.

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

“Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.

“For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian….

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” [KJV, Isa. 9.2-4, 6-7]

The second reading this morning is by the humanist and Universalist minister, Kenneth Patton.

Ours is the mood for mythologies —
tales of gods and heroes,
virgin mothers and shining babes.
Our myths are of dying huntsmen,
weeping goddesses, jeweled gifts
for a king’s son, nostalgic promises
of miracles and forever.
In the pause of the year
— when time stops, —
— when reality is no longer real: —
We make a feast of poems,
a celebration of telling tales,
a delight of songs.

[from Hymns of Humanity, heavily adapted by Dan Harper]

Story for all ages

[This story was acted out with help from members of the congregation.]

You all know about Christmas, right? Christmas is the story of the birth of a little baby. Christmas is the story of how some people thought that little baby was going to grow up to be a new King of Israel. Because even though when Jesus was born, the Romans ruled over the land of Judea (what we now call Israel), it had once been a free country. You see, it’s like this….

A hundred and seventy years before Jesus was born, the Seleucid Empire ruled the land where the Jews live. Antiochus IV, the local Seleucid ruler, wanted to destroy the Jewish religion, and one day he and his soldiers took over the Jewish temple.

But they hadn’t reckoned with brave Judah Maccabee, who was leading a rebellion against the evil Seleucids.* Judah and his sons and other soldiers beat back the Seleucids…

Then brave Judah Maccabee dumped out the statue of Zeus that evil King Antiochus had put there, they cleaned out the remnants of the pigs that had been sacrificed to anger them. Then they discovered that the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, had gone out.

They had only enough pure oil to last for one day; yet, a miracle, it lasted eight days, long enough for them to get new oil.

So began the festival of Hannukah, a festival of the rededication of the Temple. Today Hannukah reminds us how precious a thing religious freedom is — Hannukah reminds us to light a candle against the darkness, to show our willingness to fight for our freedom.

[from * — adapted from words by Rabbi Michael Feshbach]

But the kingdom that Judah Maccabee rebuilt didn’t last very long. Sixty years before Jesus was born, the Romans took over the kingdom founded by brave Judah. At first, the Romans gave the Jews independence and freedom, but gradually, gradually the Romans took over more and more and more control until at last the Jews began to think once again of rebelling against foreign rule which had been imposed upon them….

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant

The story appears in plain type, instructions to the congregation appear in italic type, and stage directions in square brackets [ ].

The Christmas story is rooted in old, old tales of the winter solstice. In ancient times in Europe, when the solstice came, our distant ancestors sometimes told stories of a miraculous child born to return us to the light. Throughout the world, people tell stories of a child born to a royal family, or to an important and rich family, who would grow up to lead humankind into a time of truth and justice.

The early Christians adapted these stories of miraculous births — but they added a twist to the old stories. Their miraculous child was not the son of a king, but was merely the son of a carpenter; he was not the son of a wealthy queen, but was instead the son of a woman whose only wealth was her moral purity. And that Christian story has been told and retold innumerable times since those early Christians first began telling it 18 or 19 hundred years ago.

We are going to recreate the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus this morning, but we are going to give it our own slant. We’ll draw on two early Christian accounts of Jesus’s birth, from the books of Matthew and Luke. Since we take the story of Hannukah seriously, we are going to make this a story of freedom and liberation. And drawing on our own Universalist heritage, we are going to make this a story of hope for all people.

Instead of just listening to or watching the story of the birth of Jesus, we are going to get inside it. Try to forget that you’ve ever heard this story before: even though you recognize the familiar characters, even though you remember the familiar plot, try to hear this story as if this if the first time you’ve heard it. At various points in the story, I am going to ask if some of you would be willing to come up here with me, and play the parts of some of the characters in the story. Don’t worry, you won’t have to speak! When I pause and ask for volunteers to play parts in the story, if you want to be in the story raise your hand, and I will call on you to take a part. Then you will move over there [point to Robers] (always walking slowly and calmly) where you will be dressed in a simple costume. Emma will then place you in the growing tableau.

Ready? Then let’s begin…

If you wish, close your eyes for a moment. Transport yourself to another time and another place. Imagine that a story is going to unfold before your very eyes, a brand-new story you’ve never heard before.

Imagine that after years and years of hearing stories about women and men bowing down before powerful kings and emperors and dictators and tyrants, you finally hear a story in which three powerful wise people kneel down alongside some shepherds before one tiny, new-born child.

Imagine that after years of hearing story after story telling of terrible wars, you are at last hearing the friendly story of a baby: the story of a humble carpenter and his wife, the baby that is born to them in a stable, shepherds in a star-lit field who go to see the new-born child, and peaceful animals who gather round in the stable where the baby lies in the cow’s feeding trough. Imagine that at last you are going to hear a story in which everyone is longing for peace on earth and good will to all persons, everywhere.

Imagine that after years of hearing stories about the results of hatred and oppression and persecutions, you finally are hearing a story about the transforming power of love.

Now slowly open your eyes. Listen and watch carefully. Let the story begin!

To start the story, I need someone to be Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.

[A member of the congregation volunteers to be Caesar, gets gold laurel to wear, is placed in pulpit.]

In those days, long, long ago, a decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, saying:

“All the world should be registered so they can pay taxes to me!”

[Caesar moves to stand beside pulpit, arms crossed]

Now I need two people, one to be Joseph, a carpenter, and one to be Mary, who’s engaged to Joseph.

[Two members of the congregation volunteer, Mary gets a blue robe to wear, and Joesph a red robe.]

Mary and Joseph, once you have your robes on, could you please walk slowly (because you’re making a long journey) up these stairs right, along the chancel stage past the pulpit, and back down those stairs. Oh, and this first scene is a starlit night, so could everyone else please hold up your hands like this, as if your hands are twinkling stars…

All the people were required to go to the town where they had been born to register. For some people, that meant a long journey. Joseph, a carpenter, had to go all the way from the town of Nazareth in Galilee [point to rear of auditorium], to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David. He went with Mary, the woman he was planning to marry, because she was expecting a child. They started on their long journey, traveling by day, and sometimes even by night, their road lit only by stars.

Joseph and Mary knew it was not going to be easy, what with Mary almost ready to have her baby. At least they had a donkey that Mary could ride on. And at least the twinkling stars made the road seem friendly.

[Joseph and Mary move to two chairs on platform in front of pulpit.]

Thank you for the stars — now that Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, you can put your hands down.

When Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, they discovered that there was no room at the inn. But the inn was the only place in town with comfortable beds. The only place Mary and Joseph could find place to take shelter was in a stable cut into the side of a hill. So they settled in to sleep there among the animals.

Now I need some animals: a cow; a pig; two chickens; I’m sure there was a mouse; and since this was the middle east, let’s add a camel.

[Members of the congregation volunteer, receive animal noses to wear, and gather around Mary and Jospeh.]

The gentle animals welcomed Joseph and Mary into their stable. And that very night, the time came for Mary to give birth. It was a stable, so when the baby was born of course there was no cradle for Mary to lay her baby in. But one of the cows was kind enough to lend her feeding trough for a cradle, and Joseph and Mary laid their new baby there among the hay in the feeding trough.

Now I’m going to need two Shepherds. Of course, I will also need Sheep for the Shepherds to watch! And I need one person who is willing to be a Messenger from the God of the Israelites, also known as an Angel of the Lord.

[Members of the congregation volunteer to be Shepherds, receive robes to wear. Four Sheep get Sheep masks to hold in front of faces. Sheep and Shepherds stand to one side of pulpit. Member of the congregation volunteers to be the Angel, receives wings and tinsel halo to wear.]

In that region, there were shepherds who lived for months at a time out in the fields, watching over their flocks of sheep by night. They had to watch over their sheep because there were wolves in the hills that would gladly eat a sheep, if they could get one.

[Angel goes into pulpit.]

On this night, as the shepherds stood watch in their fields, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and this angel was truly magnificent, and the glory of the God of the Israelites shone around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, the shepherds were terrified. But the angel spoke gently, saying to them:

“Do not be afraid, for I have appeared to bring you good news of great joy for all the people of Israel. To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah. This will be a sign to you: you will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cow’s feeding trough.”

Ah — I see we’re going to need lots more angels all of a sudden. Perhaps I could prevail on everyone in the congregation to stand for a moment, as you’re willing and able, face the Shepherds and Sheep, and act as a host of angels?

Then the angel who had spoken went on to say:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth let there be peace and goodwill among all people everywhere.”

And there was a whole host of angels singing and praising God, and the shepherds were amazed.

Upon hearing the message from their God, and hearing the songs of the angel choir, the shepherds said to one another, “This is amazing! Let’s go up to Bethlehem and actually see the baby the first angel told us about!” Being good shepherds who cared about their sheep, they brought the sheep along.

[Sheep and Shepherds gather around Mary and Joseph]

So the shepherds went to Bethlehem with their sheep, and there they found Mary and Joseph and the new baby, just as that angel had told them. (Afterwards, the shepherds would tell everyone what the angel had said to them about Mary and Joseph’s new baby, and everyone who heard their story was amazed.)

As for Mary, she already knew her baby was wonderful. But she listened carefully to what the shepherds said, and treasured all she heard in her heart.

The shepherds and sheep gathered around the feeding trough admiring the baby. They praised their God for this wonder of new birth, and they prayed and hoped that what the angel said would come true — that there would be peace on earth and goodwill for all people, even for lowly shepherds.

Now I’m going to need three Wise People, who are also royalty. After you get your crowns at the back of the church, please begin walking slowly up the aisle, and stop at the first pews.

[Three volunteers from the congregation receive crowns, and begin walking up center aisle of church.]

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three wise persons, who were kings and queens from the Far East, came to Jerusalem.

As these three wise persons journeyed their long, slow journey to Bethlehem (actually, it took them 12 days to get there, which is why we talk about the twelve days of Christmas), they noticed that their way was lit by a large and bright star.

It looks like I’m going to need someone to be the Star….

[A member of the congregation gets a large silver star on a pole to hold over the whole scene.]

First the wise persons went to visit King Herod.

I’ll need someone to be King Herod, and you can stay seated right where you are.

[A member of the congregation sitting near the front is crowned as King Herod.]

And these wise persons went to Herod and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the skies and we have come to praise him and bring him gifts.”

The three wise persons learned from King Herod about a prophecy which had been spoken long ago, that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So the wise persons set out for Bethlehem, and as they walked, they saw ahead of them the star as they first had seen it in the Far East.

The wise persons followed the star until it stopped over the stable where the newborn child was lying in the cow’s feeding trough.

[The three Wise People go to the platform, stand to one side of Mary and Joseph — wherever they fit.]

When the wise persons entered the stable and saw the new baby, they were overwhelmed with joy at this new life. They knelt down to worship him, and they opened their bags and brought out gifts of gold (because the crowns of kings were made of gold) and frankincense and myrrh (myrrh was what was put in the oil used to anoint kings).

Now we are done. Let us pause for a moment. Look at this scene. It is a special night, with stars and angels and shepherds and wise persons and animals. And they are all admiring a special baby that has just been born.

Why would all these people stand around for such a long time to admire a tiny new baby? There is only one reason I can think of — because the birth of a child always brings hope for the future. And for a people who lived under oppressive Roman rule, all the while longing for liberation, the birth of a child must have been fraught with extra meaning. Will this be the child who leads us to freedom? Will this be the child who breaks our bonds of slavery and establishes a reign of peace and righteousness?

So it is in our world today. In a world that sometimes seems hopeless, we still look with hope to the future. Every time a baby is born, we hope that this child will be one of the ones who leads us to a world of righteousness. And every time we tell this Christmas story, it reminds us that we must go out and work for liberation and justice. We — you and I — are the ones who are responsible for making sure the world is a better place for all the babies that are born.

As our cast of characters hold their places, let’s all sing together — both those sitting in the pews, and those up here with me — let us sing together hymn number 251, “Silent Night.” If you don’t have a hymnal, you can just sing the first verse over three times, or you can just hum the familiar tune. At the beginning of the second verse, I will signal to everyone up here to walk (quietly and calmly) back to where you were sitting.

Closing Words

The ancient sun warms us and spring follows winter or we perish; but no divine savior bears our salvation.

Unto us children are born, new chances are given, refreshingly, creatively, generation upon generation.

The celebrations of tomorrow will have good news of birth, and a sufficient answer to death. There will be stars of hope, and new angels singing new songs.

We ever walk towards hope; and even in the depths of winter we know that the days will grow long once again, and the earth will turn green, and flowers will bloom, and the air grow soft and warm.

[from Hymns of Humanity, adapted by Dan Harper]

Dulce Domum

This “sermon,” based on a chapter from the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, was read by Rev. Dan Harper and Emma Mitchell.

SERMON — “Dulce Domum”

Somehow, in our culture, this December season has become associated with the pleasurable side of being home. When we dream of white, snowy Christmasses, we dream of the ones we used to have back home. This association — of home and the darkest time of year — has nothing to do with Christmas. I believe it comes from another one of the roots of our culture, the ancient Northern European pagan celebration of solstice and Yule. In ancient times in northern Europe, of course you wanted to be at home at this time of year — better to be at home, even with any family squabbles you might have to endure, than to be outdoors in the bitter cold with the hungry wolves howling.

But I’d like to believe that you can leave home and make a new home; if for no other reason than that children need to be able to grow up and move out and make their own homes. I have a story about Yuletide, and leaving home, which is from the book The Wind in the Willows. In this book, the Mole left his home one spring, and he wound up living on the River bank with a new friend, the Water Rat. Our story commences half a year later, on a cold December day:

[The Mole and the Water Rat] were returning across country after a long day’s outing with [their friend] Otter, hunting and exploring on the wide uplands where certain streams tributary to their own River had their first small beginnings; and the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go….

They plodded along steadily and silently, each of them thinking his own thoughts. The Mole’s ran a good deal on supper, as it was pitch-dark…. As for the Rat, he was walking a little way ahead, as his habit was, his shoulders humped, his eyes fixed on the straight grey road in front of him. [Suddenly, the Mole smelled something that reminded him of home — his old home, that he had abandoned so long ago. But the unsuspecting Water Rat urged him to be a good fellow and come along before the snow started…. [When much later, they stopped to rest,] poor Mole at last…cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.

The Rat, astonished and dismayed at the violence of Mole’s paroxysm of grief, did not dare to speak for a while. At last he said, very quietly and sympathetically, ‘What is it, old fellow? Whatever can be the matter? Tell us your trouble, and let me see what I can do.’

Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon another so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came. ‘I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: ‘not like — your cosy quarters… but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat –… We might have just gone and had one look at it, Ratty — … it was close by — but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back! O dear, O dear!’….

The Rat stared straight in front of him, saying nothing, only patting Mole gently on the shoulder. After a time he muttered gloomily, ‘I see it all now! what a pig I’ve been!’ …Then he rose from his seat, and, remarking carelessly, ‘Well, now we’d really better be getting on, old chap!’ set off up the road again, over the toilsome way they had come.

‘Wherever are you (hic) going to (hic), Ratty?’ cried the tearful Mole, looking up in alarm.

‘We’re going to find that home of yours, old fellow,’ replied the Rat pleasantly; ‘so you had better come along, for it will take some finding, and we shall want your nose.’…

They moved on in silence for some little way, when suddenly the Rat was conscious, through his arm that was linked in Mole’s, of a faint sort of electric thrill that was passing down that animal’s body…. Mole stood a moment rigid, while his uplifted nose, quivering slightly, felt the air. Then a short, quick run forward — a fault — a check — a try back; and then a slow, steady, confident advance.

The Rat, much excited, kept close to his heels as the Mole… nosed his way over a field open and trackless and bare in the faint starlight. Suddenly, without giving warning, he dived; but the Rat was on the alert, and promptly followed him down the tunnel to which his unerring nose had faithfully led him.

It was close and airless, and the earthy smell was strong, and it seemed a long time to Rat ere the passage ended and he could stand erect and stretch and shake himself. The Mole struck a match, and by its light the Rat saw that they were standing in an open space, neatly swept and sanded underfoot, and directly facing them was Mole’s little front door, with ‘Mole End’ painted, in Gothic lettering, over the bell-pull at the side.

Mole reached down a lantern from a nail on the wail and lit it, and the Rat, looking round him, saw that they were in a sort of fore-court. A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other a roller; for the Mole… was a tidy animal…. Down on one side of the forecourt ran a skittle-alley, with benches along it and little wooden tables marked with rings that hinted at beer-mugs. In the middle was a small round pond containing gold-fish and surrounded by a cockle-shell border. Out of the centre of the pond rose a fanciful erection clothed in more cockle-shells and topped by a large silvered glass ball that reflected everything all wrong and had a very pleasing effect.

Mole’s face-beamed at the sight of all these objects so dear to him, and he hurried Rat through the door, lit a lamp in the hall, and took one glance round his old home. He saw the dust lying thick on everything, saw the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meagre dimensions, its worn and shabby contents — and collapsed again on a hall-chair, his nose to his paws. ‘O Ratty!’ he cried dismally, ‘why ever did I do it? Why did I bring you to this poor, cold little place, on a night like this…!’

The Rat paid no heed to his doleful self-reproaches. He was running here and there, opening doors, inspecting rooms and cupboards, and lighting lamps and candles and sticking them, up everywhere. ‘What a capital little house this is!’ he called out cheerily. ‘So compact! So well planned! Everything here and everything in its place! We’ll make a jolly night of it. The first thing we want is a good fire; I’ll see to that — I always know where to find things…. Now, I’ll fetch the wood and the coals, and you get a duster, Mole — you’ll find one in the drawer of the kitchen table — and try and smarten things up a bit. Bustle about, old chap!’

Encouraged by his inspiriting companion, the Mole roused himself and dusted and polished with energy and heartiness, while the Rat, running to and fro with armfuls of fuel, soon had a cheerful blaze roaring up the chimney. He hailed the Mole to come and warm himself; but Mole promptly had another fit of the blues… ‘Rat,’ he moaned, ‘how about your supper, you poor, cold, hungry, weary animal? I’ve nothing to give you — nothing — not a crumb!’

‘What a fellow you are for giving in!’ said the Rat reproachfully. ‘Why, only just now I saw a sardine-opener on the kitchen dresser, quite distinctly; and everybody knows that means there are sardines about somewhere in the neighbourhood…. Pull yourself together, and come with me and forage.’

They went and foraged accordingly…. The result was not so very depressing after all, though of course it might have been better; a tin of sardines — a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full — and a German sausage encased in silver paper.

‘There’s a banquet for you!’ observed the Rat, as he arranged the table….

‘No bread!’ groaned the Mole dolorously; ‘no butter, no –‘

‘No paté de foie gras, no champagne!’ continued the Rat, grinning. ‘And that reminds me — what’s that little door at the end of the passage? Your cellar, of course! Every luxury in this house! Just you wait a minute.’

He made for the cellar-door, and presently reappeared, somewhat dusty, with a bottle of beer in each paw and another under each arm…. ‘This is really the jolliest little place I ever was in,’ [ he said.] ‘Now, wherever did you pick up those prints? Make the place look so home-like, they do. No wonder you’re so fond of it, Mole. Tell us all about it, and how you came to make it what it is.’

Then, while the Rat busied himself fetching plates, and knives and forks, and mustard which he mixed in an egg-cup, the Mole, his bosom still heaving with the stress of his recent emotion, related — somewhat shyly at first, but with more freedom as he warmed to his subject — how this was planned, and how that was thought out, and how this was got through a windfall from an aunt, and that was a wonderful find and a bargain, and this other thing was bought out of laborious savings and a certain amount of ‘going without.’ His spirits finally quite restored, he must needs go and caress his possessions, and take a lamp and show off their points to his visitor….

At last the Rat succeeded in decoying him to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without — sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them — ‘Now, all in a line — hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy — clear your throats first — no coughing after I say one, two, three. — Where’s young Bill? — Here, come on, do, we’re all a-waiting –‘

‘What’s up?’ inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

‘I think it must be the field-mice,’ replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. ‘They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They’re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over — they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.’

‘Let’s have a look at them!’ cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, ‘Now then, one, two, three!’ and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Here the congregation sang the Yuletide song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”

The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded — but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

‘Very well sung, boys!’ cried the Rat heartily. ‘And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!’

‘Yes, come along, field-mice,’ cried the Mole eagerly. ‘This is quite like old times! Shut the door after you. Pull up that settle to the fire. Now, you just wait a minute, while we — O, Ratty!’ he cried in despair, plumping down on a seat… ‘Whatever are we doing? We’ve nothing to give them!’

‘You leave all that to me,’ said the masterful Rat. ‘Here, you with the lantern! Come over this way…. Now, tell me, are there any shops open at this hour of the night?’

‘Why, certainly, sir,’ replied the field-mouse respectfully.

‘Then look here!’ said the Rat. ‘You go off at once, you and your lantern, and you get me –‘ Here much muttered conversation ensued, and…finally, there was a chink of coin passing from paw to paw, the field-mouse was provided with an ample basket for his purchases, and off he hurried, he and his lantern.

The rest of the field-mice, perched in a row on the settle, their small legs swinging, gave themselves up to enjoyment of the fire, and toasted their chilblains till they tingled; while the Mole, failing to draw them into easy conversation, plunged into family history and made each of them recite the names of his numerous brothers, who were too young, it appeared, to be allowed to go out a-carolling this year, but looked forward very shortly to winning the parental consent.

The Rat, meanwhile, [began to] to mull some ale…. It did not take long to prepare the brew and thrust the tin heater well into the red heart of the fire; and soon every field- mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in all his life…. [At last] the latch clicked, the door opened, and the field-mouse with the lantern reappeared, staggering under the weight of his basket…[and the] contents of the basket had been tumbled out on the table.

Under the generalship of Rat, everybody was set to do something or to fetch something. In a very few minutes supper was ready, and Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savoury comforts; saw his little friends’ faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose — for he was famished indeed — on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy home-coming this had turned out, after all. As they ate, they talked of old times, and the field-mice gave him the local gossip up to date, and answered as well as they could the hundred questions he had to ask them. The Rat said little or nothing, only taking care that each guest had what he wanted, and plenty of it, and that Mole had no trouble or anxiety about anything.

They clattered off at last, very grateful and showering wishes of the season, with their jacket pockets stuffed with remembrances for the small brothers and sisters at home. When the door had closed on the last of them and the chink of the lanterns had died away, Mole and Rat kicked the fire up, drew their chairs in, brewed themselves a last nightcap of mulled ale, and discussed the events of the long day. At last the Rat, with a tremendous yawn, said, ‘Mole, old chap, I’m ready to drop. Sleepy is simply not the word. That your own bunk over on that side? Very well, then, I’ll take this. What a ripping little house this is! Everything so handy!’…

The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour…. He saw clearly how plain and simple — how narrow, even — it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life,… to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.

So ends the Yuletide story of Mole and Rat. May you, like the Mole, have a core of something that you can go back to when the year is dark and cold. May you always have somewhere, or something, that feels like home to you, something that reflects the core of who you are. And may you always find your way back to the sun and the warmth and all that they promise; may you always have a place on the larger stage of life.