Footprints in the Snow, by the author with the unlikely name of Racey Helps. It seems to have been the first book he wrote, in 1946, and I must have been an early fan. (No, I couldn't read in 1946, but ...). I was thinking, as I wrote my last post about Advent, about what it is that we feel in this season, and it was when I was musing that it is certainly not a feeling confined to Christians that the memory of this book surfaced.
Today as I write the darkness of the early night has already engulfed us at 4.30 in the afternoon. It has been a foul day, and though the weather this week has until now been sunny and cold, it was threatening - the menace of black ice under the sun, the stubborn slush that would have you upended in a trice. It gives me pleasure to have returned to my warm house, to put on lights and fires - central heating isn't enough: I need orange flames to complete the setting - and to be safely inside for the evening. Better, we are expecting friends to come round and sing with us, sing Advent music and enjoy the shared experience.
That is a particular instance, fixed very specifically in time and place and inclination. The child's book above reaches the same area of contrast: that which separates cold, wet darkness, loneliness and threat from warmth and love. From my memory, the little anthropomorphic characters with names like Millicent, Barnaby and Nubby Tope (that's the mole) find themselves frightened and menaced on a cold winter night and end up warm and safe and loved. It happens all over the place - in Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even in Spooks (MI5 HQ being the safe hub where danger only rarely and shockingly obtrudes and usually happens outside). And it is there, I believe, at the heart of what happens in Advent, and particularly poignantly when Advent is experienced in the cold darkness of a northern winter.
That's where the rush to put up lights, to flock to warm, cheerful shops, to drink in cosy pubs comes from especially strongly at this time. The world is a hard place, but we can crowd together in a communal setting that will give us the illusion at least of being part of a group; we buy presents and send greetings and when these are reciprocated we have the warm glow of ... love? And whether it's real or commercialised, people feel the need for it, feel this need always but especially in the dark times. If we are mature participants in a tradition that says wait, prepare, sense the darkness because of what you know will come, don't try to break it too early, then we savour the possibilites of our tradition to nurture our need and supply us with the realisation of love that did come, that does come. But if we are so wretched because of our physical situation, or our emotional or mental state, it can be harder to feel beyond the loneliness and threat of the season - and that's when the stories come in.
I loved that little book Footprints in the Snow. I can remember reading it, in my bed, in the winter - and I cannot recall reading it on a light summer evening. Very early, I think, I realised the attraction of the warmth and light and love at the end of a hard journey. I believe we are all like this, and we are all searching, whatever we believe, for just that: warmth, light, love. If we can help to provide that as well as need it, we are doing well.