Christina Rossetti’s ‘snow on snow’

Posted in Blog, Christianity

I’m sure that this Christmas we shall all enjoy singing Christina Rossetti’s fine verse:

In the bleak mid‐winter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak mid‐winter,

Long ago.

But is it really likely that snow would fall in Bethlehem or was this simply a poet’s licence, adding credence to our Christmas cards? Well, our niece arrived in Jerusalem in 2019 and has spent three Christmas holidays there. It snowed on two of those Christmases – and she sent us a photograph of several inches of snow at the school where she teaches. You have to remember that Jerusalem is 2,474 feet above sea level and Bethlehem, at 2,543 feet, is even higher. It snows in Israel more often than you think and Mt. Hermon – which many scholars believe was the site of the transfiguration of Jesus – has snow most years in the winter.

It is interesting to think that Christina may have had special knowledge of the climate in Israel. Her brother, Dante Gabriel, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Though Christina was never a member of this company of young artists, she knew them well and agreed with many of their views. When Dante painted ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’ he used the face of his sister as his inspiration. And when later, Holman Hunt, another member of the Brotherhood, painted his famous ‘The Light of the World’, depicting Jesus knocking at the door of the human heart, Christina sat for him for the eyes and the brow of the head of Christ. In the mid-1850s Hunt travelled to the Holy Land in search of inspiration and accuracy for his religious paintings, and to employ his ‘powers to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching’. Holman Hunt built his own house in Jerusalem at 64 Hanevi’im Street, just down the road from where our niece teaches. Sheila and I often walked past the house when we were in Jerusalem this Easter.

Sir Edmund Gosse described Christina Rossetti as a ‘great poet and a great saint; and the poet and the saint were one’. Her faith was set on the miracle of a God incarnate in Jesus Christ. This for her was the Jesus of Bethlehem, Galilee, the Mount of Olives and Calvary. And she encourages us still to sing of these things in the second verse of ‘In the bleak mid-winter’:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When he comes to reign:

In the bleak mid‐winter

A stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ.

Christina was firm in her belief that the Lord of Bethlehem and Calvary will come again, one of the themes of the Advent season as we prepare for Christmas. She wrote:

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,

The Advent nights are long;

Our lamps have burned year after year

And still their flames are long.

For her, as for the first Christians, watchfulness is a mark of the Christian life. During many years in her home, first with her mother, and then with her mother’s sisters, she lived an uneventful life. But her brother kept her in touch with a wider world, and, in her heart, she kept her vigil.