Into the Bleak Midwinter.

By: Jen Shoop

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Last Friday, I was rushing, irritated. Plans had gone awry, appointment times had spilled over, and the day’s agenda chafed and constricted, a too-tight sweater. I hate the feeling of being rushed, but I am now so conscious of and allergic to the glorification of busyness that I doubly despise the sensation.

In my car, by unprogrammed happenstance, Siri played “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a choral hymn performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. I’d never heard it before, but would later learn that many consider this “the world’s greatest carol.”

Time stalled, then stretched out like taffy. The arrangement alone left a lump in my throat. The piercing staccato notes, the exquisite dynamics, the artful syncopation plucked at my heart strings. What you are worrying about at this moment does not matter, the piano seemed to say. And then, too, the lyrics, which I later learned were adapted from an 1872 poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti, who was described by her brother as “replete with the spirit of self-postponement.” (More on that later, but fellow English majors may remember Rossetti even without her brother’s portraiture as the author of “Goblin Market,” a text we all probably hated at one point, but is well worth re-visiting. It is weird and rich and surprisingly modern?)

The opening quatrain is fascinating:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

The lines are catchy and well-paced — almost singsong — with a crisp AABB rhyme scheme, but they also have a strange scansion pattern: 11 feet (line 1), 11 feet (line 2), 10 feet (line 3), 9 feet (line 4), and seem to alternate erratically between patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Perhaps there is a poetry student who can share the full scan for trochees and dactyls, but even without that apparatus: if we read the stanza, we will find ourselves unsure at certain points of how to pace and emphasize the lines, especially in “snow on snow, snow on snow.” But this metrical dissonance echoes the broader themes of the poem: this is the story of Christmas, and the shocking imbalance between a birth in a humble manger and the salvation it heralded.

The modern, dynamic piano instrumentation presents a parallel gloss: its halting simplicity strains against the fullness and tradition of the vocals. This is a sung poem of contrast. The rich against the bare; the choir beside the single-struck piano note; the king amidst the hay.

I was, of course, Gretel on her breadcrumb trail, following the scattered path home. I thought immediately of how badly I’d misjudged the weight of my own day. I re-scaled the matters on my mind, the hymn a badly-needed solvent, both in the context of the day and in the broader lead-up to Advent. “Let’s get this straight,” I found myself thinking, adjusting. Later, I thought of Rossetti, and of her “spirit of self-postponement,” and of the way she was perfectly poised to write about the quiet wait of Advent. How badly I had needed to hear her vanitas mundi rejoinder.


+”O Little Town of Bethlehem” remains my favorite carol, though. I sing it to my children every night of the year. I wrote a bit about it here and here.

+My missa cantata.


+In praise of a normal day.

Shopping Break.

+I have been resisting this admission for a long time, but I have to say — True & Co’s seamless triangle bra is, after all, the best bra in the world. I wish it were a tad sexier/prettier but it is so comfortable, looks great under everything, and works with tons of necklines. I reach for it every single day. This was a Magpie reader rec and you did not steer me wrong. They released a less expensive version with Target, but I’ve not tried it. (Has anyone else? Is it as good as the real thing?)

+My favorite running shoes are $30 off with code NIKE30. (Run!)

+Very tempted by this reversible jacket. Love the ultra-textured side!

+Doen launches its holiday collection today at 9 AM EST. I will be lined up and waiting. They sent me a preview and I’m already obsessed with the red velvet Celestine, the embellished Pamelina, and the slightly quirky Meltia. If you’re long and lean, the tartan Rosabelle is fabulous, too.

+Dillard’s line J. Marie has some really cute holiday options — this lace maxi dress reminds me of La Vie Stylehouse (cute option if expecting around the holidays!), and how cute is this tartan top?!

+If you like the look of my beloved Leset tee but not the price, I just noticed Target has $10 pointelle tees available in a range of colors here!

+My girlfriend Inslee designs the most beautiful desk calendars each year. You can buy here! I’ve given these as Christmas gifts to my mom and MIL in years past.

+This sequin maxi skirt is currently on sale for $114. So fab.

+This is the CUTEST fair isle sweater.

+Toying with the idea of buying my son a Banwood skateboard for Christmas. I recently noticed, while he was taking his first skating lesson, that he has a great temperament for athletics. He is not easily discouraged or frustrated, and takes feedback on the chin, without embarrassment or grimace. I think we might try to get him into more sports programs now that he’s heading into K.

+And a gift idea on my mind for my girl: this karaoke set. She loves singing SO much.

+I just learned about the beauty brand Flyte.70. Has anyone tried? Intrigued by this serum primer and their lip colors.


+Great winter base layer for athleisure days.

+How adorable is this snowman sweatshirt for your little one?

+I’ve read a few Lauren Groff pieces over the years and somehow missed the release of this one about a month ago. On my reading list…

+Ski bunnies: how cute are these ski-print jammies/thermals from Polkadot London?

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20 thoughts on “Into the Bleak Midwinter.

  1. gah, this song. I cry every time i hear it. I love this scene from season one of the crown (I can’t remember if you watched it?) when the king knows he is nearing his death. I tear up thinking about it!

    also– I read the new Lauren Groff and ADORED IT. It’s a tougher read but absolutely gorgeous. I tore through it in a few sittings and haven’t stopped thinking about it. Report back if you read it! xx

    1. So beautiful — I’m not a Crown watcher so I’d missed that! Thank you, and thanks for the suggestion on Lauren Groff! Definitely on the list.


  2. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs – I cry every year when they sing it during our church’s Christmas pageant. James Taylor has a lovely version on his Christmas album – it’s one of my most played songs each year.

    1. I can see why — it is a profoundly moving song in both lyric and composition. I cannot believe I’ve never heard it before – where have I been living?! Under a rock?

      Going to listen to as many versions as possible…


  3. Beautiful essay, as always, Jen!

    In the Bleak Midwinter has special meaning to me–it was my grandfather’s favorite Christmas song, and when we interred his ashes during a very cold winter, we sang this song at his grave.

    1. Wow – what a moving and spectacular song for an interment. Thank you for sharing – I am sure that song is so precious to you.


  4. I also love “In the Bleak Midwinter” – Have you heard the carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”? Another one that I find beautiful!

    1. Oo Sofia – my family has a special connection to that song. For years, we attended the same anticipatory Mass at the same church, and they had the same special singer perform, and he would absolutely SLAY this song. Like, it was the high point of the Mass for everyone, and we’d all be waiting eagerly. He was excellent at the dynamics. We’ve not been back since COVID — I’m curious if he’s still there. Beautiful hymn.

      Thanks for reminding me!


  5. Oh man, this is one of my favorite hymns of all time! It’s a wintertime staple even in Unitarian churches and I am always so happy to see it when I open the order of service.

    1. Would you believe I’d never heard it before?! It must not be as prominent in the Catholic tradition, or perhaps it was just never performed so movingly? I was astounded!!


  6. Just threw out an everyday bra yesterday. Ordered the True version from Target. Great timing!

    FYI: My son started school early and was not the same age as his peers. Actually two years younger which put him at a big deficit for coordination skills, age wise. It didn’t matter much until high school when you made Varsity teams. Fortunately, he went to an elite high school that valued ALL aspects of life and NOT just sports. I mention this because I have recently talked to friends who have enrolled their young children with a private sports/coordination coach. Most single exercise coaches will do this. They work on coordination skills. Never knew this and by the time I thought it would be helpful (high school) it was much too late. Just interesting tidbit, because high school can be a tough time for kids.

    1. Thank you for paying that forward! So helpful to know that – didn’t know those coaches existed.

      Glad the True & Co came through at the right time!


  7. Hi Jen. When you get a moment, would you mind sharing your recommendations on advent devotionals? It looks like the Melanie Shankle you referenced in a previous post is no longer available. I think I recall you sharing advent cards or something similar.? I’m looking for a small thoughtful gift for a girlfriend for Thanksgiving.
    Always appreciate your insights.

  8. Yes the Target True & Co is as good as the real thing! The only thing that drives me crazy about these bras (and really all bralettes) is how the cups move around, get scrunched up, fall out..why can’t they be sewn in place!?

    1. Seconding the True & Co bras from Target. They’re great, and my everyday bras for working from home since early 2020. I remove the cups unless I know I’ll be in a chilly office for some reason.

    2. I agree with you on that — however, compared to other bras, I find the inserts easier to reposition. I’ve had others that require, like, dramatic surgery to properly position. Ha!


  9. I certainly cannot speak intelligently on the song itself… but it brought to mind, what Christ is… the ultimate disruption of all of our safe thoughts, and if I may bring Eastern thought back into it… the complete upending of our Ego,
    He says… Yes. I am here and have always been… it is only your insistence that the world is real, that Death is real, that causes our illusion that we are separate. He came to remind us. There is no separation. It is a messy process… maybe that is the chaos in the song?
    Jen, what do I know… as usual, your vulnerability moves me to share, but I do hope I’ve not offended you. Xoxo

    1. Beautiful thoughts – thank you so much for sharing. Glad the song stirred up these sentiments for you, too. It was a profound car moment for me!


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