Every year from 3rd-8th grade, I was in a play at my school called St George and the Dragon. St George has played a long-standing role in history, the myth of St George and Dragon is said to have emerged during the Crusades, and the watered-down gist is that a dragon is terrorizing an area and none but St George can protect the village from the dragon. In our version, a number of colorful characters (who were the same every year, much to my parents chagrin) first have to emerge setting up the story and saying that they know who will be able to fight the dragon before St George arrives. The highlight was, sadly, when St George would get struck down battling the dragon and a very funny doctor would arrive on a hobby horse and administer a series of quack remedies to revive St George (a favorite line of mine: “If the box don’t cure ya, the lid will!”) before everyone would realize he was a fake and call in Father Christmas who would would save St George. As kids we are able to mark our school years by which of the characters we were, and there was always the hope that this would be the year that we would be cast as St George or, in my case, The Fool…a role I waited for until 8th grade. Every year our head of school, Charlotte, would revise the basic script (which was, line for line, the same every year) to incorporate elements of what we were learning that year into the play. For instance, the year that we studied Shakespeare and Chaucer, there was a troop of actors that arrived before St George to perform bits of various Shakespeare plays and some of the Canterbury-ish Tales that we had written. Other years we mixed in different styles of dance that we have learned, the various instruments that were being studied and so on.
The show is still going on–in fact it had it’s 25th anniversary recently–and I take great delight in going back to watch it now because for all of the little bits that are different, the general story is still the same and there’s something very comforting about going to a play where you already know all of the lines, and the costumes, and the songs…
The school performs St George on, or as close as possible to, the Winter Solstice and every year the play open in darkness with one or two people standing with a candle and reciting a poem by Susan Cooper in hushed and deeply dramatic voices. The last line of the poem is “Welcome Yule!” to which in turn, we would all return the call and walk through the aisles with candles singing Deck the Halls and driving the darkness away with the light of 100 little people and their carefully cradled candles. The candles would stay, flickering and amusing, on a table at the back of the stage throughout the performance and the shortest day of the year (or, of course, one awfully close to it) would come to a close with parents clapping with relief, I’m sure that another St George had come to a close, and kids smiling, thrilled with themselves.
All of that is to say, that whenever the Winter Solstice comes, at some point during the day I hear Susan Cooper’s words echoing in the part of my brain that can’t seem to forget anything that I learned before I was 10 that might have rhymed, and I thought that I would share that with you, a day late. It’s amazing to think that today will be brighter just a little bit longer than yesterday, and that this summer when Drew and I are eating in the back yard at 8:00 in lingering light, we can think about driving the darkness out on December the 21st. Welcome Yule!
The Shortest Day
By Susan Cooper
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.