I’m posting a day early this week, and if it’s Christmas Eve it has to be that perennial Hardy favourite, ‘The Oxen’, and even though I imagine few of my readers will need reminding of it, for me its wistful poignancy still works every time. I do wonder, though, about the line ‘So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!’. I would have thought that in Hardy’s day the weaving of fair fancies was still going strong. True, it was already some years since Darwin had presented his challenge to religious orthodoxy, and since Matthew Arnold had stood on Dover beach and heard the sea of faith receding, but had these intellectual currents really impinged that much as yet on popular belief?
Not that fair fancy is entirely dead even now. A year or two back, one frosty Christmas Eve with a moon rising, I met a neighbour’s small child who informed very earnestly that if I waited and watched the sky with her I might see Father Christmas and his reindeer flying across the face of the moon on their way to making their deliveries. What could I do but stand with her and look up, hoping it might be so…
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel
‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.