Maggy Whitehouse


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“Legend has it that on the night of the Nativity, whoever ventures out into great snows (or any bad weather) bearing a succulent bone for a lost and lamenting hound, a wisp of hay or some oats for a shivering horse, a warm cloak for a stranded wayfarer, a garland of bright berries for one who has worn chains, a dish of crumbs for all huddled birds who thought their song was dead and sweetmeats for little children who peer from lonely windows, ‘shall be proffered and returned gifts of such an astonishment as will rival the hues of the peacock and the harmonies of heaven.’”(from Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, Simple Abundance).

This allegedly medieval practice is something I love to do each Christmas Eve, even now when we live out in the country where two tractors and a car coming past in a day is referred to as being crazy like Piccadilly Circus.

I guess I cheat a little. The bone is simple enough – most butchers will let you have a raw bone – and porridge oats are quite acceptable to horses (I’ve checked). There aren’t a lot of horses wandering around in cities on Christmas Eve but there are a fair few on Dartmoor.

The warm cloak is usually an old jacket that has long seen better days or even a thick towel if there’s no coat at hand and the garland of bright berries is usually fake or tinsel. Crumbs are easy but the sweets or biscuits have to be carefully thought through. Should they be wrapped? If so, what if a passing animal tries to take them? But if they are not, no human would want them. And if I put them in a tin or pot, someone may take the tin or pot! (I know, I know…drastic missing of the whole point of unconditional giving with that particular hissy fit).

It’s also important to put a note on the tray to say ‘These are free gifts’, otherwise you might get some very polite if somewhat incoherent person banging on the door at midnight saying, ‘are these for the taking and if so, are they gluten-free?’

It has become one of the delights of Christmas morning to go out and see what has and hasn’t gone from the tray. In the city, the coat, the sweets/biscuits (and the tin/box) had frequently gone; the oats would have been scattered by enquiring beaks or noses but oddly the bone was always left behind, perhaps too much hard work for our spoilt urban foxes? And no one yet, in any location, has taken the wreath.

No, I’m being inaccurate; something always takes the wreath – and then returns it, battered, shattered and grubby. It may be the wind that picks it up and plays with it, throwing it either up into the air or down into the gutter, but I like to think it’s devas or fairies, angels or even imps, picking up something pretty, exalting in it and leaving it as worn as if it had been dancing all night and then been abandoned in the cold light of dawn as the spirits return to their trees and rivers and the great arc of heaven.

In the city, the hunt for the remains of the offering tray would take a few minutes as I checked the street for what had been love but remains as litter, but here on Dartmoor, it can take half an hour to check the lanes and the fields to see what the breath-of-God winds may have done with my gifts.

Perhaps it’s just foolishness; it certainly doesn’t do as much good as giving to Crisis or to any of the charities that ramp up their campaigns for Christmas. But I think it’s an offering of intent, of love, of understanding that will be received and passed on in some way that we may not even understand. It has to be totally unconditional: I’ll never know who has taken what and they never have to say ‘thank you’ or possibly, ‘it’s the wrong colour; do you have the receipt?’

Have I been given “gifts of such an astonishment as will rival the hues of the peacock and the harmonies of heaven” in return? Oh yes… Over the years I’ve been given laughter and creativity, slipped on ice, peered through fog, been blasted by gales and squelched through mud in my slippers. I’ve seen the sparkling gauze of the Milky Way draped across the inky sky, the glory of thunderheads and cirrus clouds and the moon in all its phases. I’ve heard the scuffling and scuttling of creatures, the creaking and rustling of the trees, the hooting of owls. I’ve felt the breath of the angels and the spirits and heard the song of the Cosmos. And I’ve stood, across the centuries, in my heart and my mind, with my humble tray of offerings in a stable in Bethlehem where I’ve wished I’d included a warming drink and a soft pillow too.

I have a lovely home, a husband who is my best friend, good friends, happy healthy pets and I do work that I love. And the locals frequently deliver gifts of pheasants bright as golden, bronze and scarlet peacocks.

So I think I’ll record that as a ‘yes.’

I’ll be doing it again this year. Why don’t you? You may be clothing angels unawares.

Wishing you a blessed and peaceful Christmas.