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Letter from British Heritage -- January 2007

Originally published on Published Online: November 08, 2006 
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In the Midst of Winter, Joy!

The days grow shorter and the relative darkness of winter makes its annual visitation upon us. 'Tis the time of year when in our northern climes "Icicles hang by the wall, and Dick the shepherd blows his nail," as Shakespeare describes it. Winter. As one of Georgian essayist Joseph Addison's narrative heroes, Sir Roger de Coverley, is heard to observe, "'I have often thought,' says Sir Roger, 'it happens very well that Christmas should fall out in the middle of winter.'"

It certainly does. In prehistoric times, the British Celts celebrated the winter solstice, imploring and cheering the gradual return of the sun through the cold months ahead. Over the centuries a Christianized Britain has used Christmas and its revels to accomplish the same thing, to which we add a promise of hope, for peace on earth to folk of goodwill everywhere. And every year, it seems, we need to be reminded of that message again.

Our 21st-century war continues, not against terrorism per se, but against a very real, if shadowy, enemy to our Anglo-American ethos, way of life and freedoms. Peace on earth is as far away from our frail human grasp as it has always been. Of that, we hardly need to be reminded. Still, this holiday season as ever, it can warm our hearts and feed our understanding to reflect on the Christmas cradle, the hope it still brings and the gifts we have been given by it.

In this joy-filled issue of British Heritage we unwrap many of those gifts. After all, what would the holiday season be without the bell ringers and kettles of the Salvation Army — perhaps the premier faith-based social service organization in the world? And whose Christmas could be complete without the triumphant, stirring strains of Handel's Messiah telling the whole story? Of course, if we are speaking of Christmas gifts, shopping for them on London's Regent Street is a holiday tradition itself.

After the Great Migrations brought the first waves of British settlers to America, Liverpool emerged as a principal port of emigration, through which traveled the second great wave of migration to the States: laborers from the northern English industries, Scots coming out of the Highlands, Irish leaving behind a famine-ridden land. We visit their story of hope as well.

It is easy enough at any time of year to become preoccupied with the mess of the moment. One great remedy for such a funk is to sit down with the pages of BH and be reminded of the grace and greatness of our heritage. Another is to occasionally join the immortal toast of Dickens' Tiny Tim: "God bless us, every one!"

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