It’s a bit of a tradition for me now to make Gingerbread Stars for Christmas. It’s an inexpensive, easy homemade gift for the holiday season and much appreciated by the recipients. The recipe is my Mother’s and produces more than enough to give to different sets of friends, a tin or two for the workplace and leftovers for house guests. My only addition to the recipe is a little freshly grated ginger as well as the dry ground but it can be made just as well without.
Each year I’ve meant to write about the great gingerbread making and each year time has overtaken me. And so each year I’ve taken photos with great optimism — these, from 2016, interposed in my phone’s camera reel with a trip to see the RSC’s King Lear at the Barbican — all ready for a bestiary entry which never gets done…
This year of course will be different. Instead of a busy, relatively carefree Christmas in company with much of the UK I’ll be having a careful, relative-free one. I know this whole year has been an exercise in letting things go, and I count myself lucky I have a Christmas bubble (bauble?) with nice people in it and that my losses have been extremely mild compared to those of many others, but I did have a little cry on Sunday adjusting to the fact I definitely wouldn’t be travelling up North. It’s been a long year, hasn’t it? And while there will be many challenges to navigate in the new one so many of us wanted to be able to take a break from it all for a few days and escape into something a bit more like the Christmases of the past.
Gingerbread itself offers a tangible link to Christmases much longer ago. It’s been a treat in Europe since at least the eleventh century, when it was given as a gift by monastic houses or baked as a delicacy in royal kitchens or (later) sold at Gingerbread Fairs. The taste of ginger — like the cinnamon and nutmeg which can also be added — helps convey something of the flavour of those older Christmases. Early modern recipes tend to be lighter and sweeter, but eating and exchanging gingerbread is still a Christmas tradition and still permissible in the time of Covid — a way in which we touch hands, however lightly, with that medieval world.
If the gingerbread-making evokes the warmth of past Christmases, the stars make me think of the hope of the Christmas story too — one accessible not just to the rich and mighty, but the poor and powerless. Especially for them in fact as we learn in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of wonder at God’s mercy. And in the midst of everything else that’s going on — or not going on — right now, is one astronomical event that will make this particular Christmas memorable for another reason: the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the evening of Monday the 21st of December will be a bright spot on the horizon if the weather is good enough for us to view it and you can find more details on what and how to look for here. It’s the first time a planetary ‘star’ this spectacular has occurred for hundreds of years, which naturally brings to mind the story of the wise men (in Latin, magi) journeying to Bethlehem because of the unusual star that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, which modern astronomers think likely to have been a conjunction or near conjunction of planets between 7 and 2 BC. Fittingly enough, its appearance this year coincides with both the Winter Solstice and the day appointed for the Antiphon, O Oriens (O Light), echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a saviour appearing like a star
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…
As the Clerk of Oxford reminds us, these Advent Antiphons are traditionally sung at Vespers “in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, [as] ancient songs of longing and desire in the darkest time of the year” and in Christ we have a saviour who entered the world just when he was most longed for and needed, and who in the end provides a deeper comfort and more lasting hope than any breakthrough vaccines or changes of politics.
These songs of hope and longing have a special resonance for me this year. It’s easy to romanticise the medieval celebration of Christmas because of our distance from it, but like Zechariah before us, medieval revellers knew what it was to celebrate in darkness and the shadow of death — aware, as we too are more keenly aware, of the instability of life and its brevity and fragility. Many of our most hauntingly beautiful Carols have come to us from this medieval past as well, with their message of hope and joy even in times of great turmoil and sadness. One written in fifteenth-century England that I know is going to be ringing in my head this week is “This Endris Night I saw a sight, / A star as bright as day…” Thinking of all celebrating this year in less than ideal circumstances, and the hope that shines out brighter than a star in the darkness.
Listen to this evocative setting of This Endris Night by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a whole service of medieval carols at Great St Barts (the oldest church in London), or perhaps this lovely rendition of the Magnificat and Wexford Carol if you prefer something a little more early modern.
Feast your eyes on this beautiful fifteenth-century nativity detail from the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau (Walters MS W.174, fol. 17v) with the starlight lancing through the thatch of the stable roof as in so many medieval nativity scenes:
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