Xmas Church: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge
published 1960, set in the 1880s
Every year, at half-past five on Christmas Eve, Michael lifted his great fist and struck the double quarter, and the Cathedral bells rang out. They pealed for half-an-hour and all over the city, and in all the villages to which the wind carried the sound of the bells, they knew that Christmas had begun. People in the fen wrapped cloaks about them and went out of doors and stood looking towards the city. This year it was bitterly cold but the wind had swept the clouds away and the Cathedral on its hill towered up among the stars, light shining from its windows. Below it the twinkling city lights were like clustering fireflies about its feet….
In the city, as soon as the bells started, everyone began to get ready. Then from nearly every house family parties came out and made their way up the steep streets towards the Cathedral. Quite small children were allowed to stay up for the carol service, and they chattered like sparrows as they stumped along buttoned into their thick coats, the boys gaitered and mufflered, the girls with muffs and fur bonnets...
commentary: I explained in this entry earlier in the year how I came to read this book (recommendation from Hilary McKay) and how it slowly pulled me in with its good-heartedness. The book comes to its climax over Christmas time: the carol service on Christmas Eve and the Dean’s sermon on Christmas Day bring all the strands of the plot together. (And there has been a Xmas entry already.)
There is a lovely description of the choir singing the carols, and then of the Dean, ‘his voice like a raucous trumpet, it had such power behind it’, reading from the Gospel of John. ‘Could it be true?’ the congregation thinks, ‘If it was true… they need never fear again.’
Goudge sounds like someone who had an all-encompassing personal faith. The book is about how religion ought to be a help and comfort, reaching out to people, but that it doesn’t always work out that way. But she allows a bittersweet happy ending to the people of the town and the towering figure of the Dean himself.
It’s a perfect Christmas read.
The black and white drawing is ‘People going to Church’ by John Wolcott Adams from the Library of Congress.
The painting is ‘Christmas Morning 1865’ by Thomas Falcon Marshall, from WikiGallery.