Christmas as Homecoming: Recommending Seasonal Readings of The Wind in the Willows

Those of us in the contemporary world have very few things left for which we spend several days in celebrations. In all pre-modern cultures, many high feast days and other events such as weddings required days of preparation and then almost as many days of festivity and feasting. I can’t think of anything in the contemporary world that still involves days of celebration. Our closest equivalent now might be the happy juxtaposition of Christmas and our New Year’s Day. Almost despite ourselves, many of us get a small taste of the Twelve Days of Christmas without really knowing it. Of course, the Twelve Days of Christmas contain a long list of commemorations for martyrs. Today is the Feast of Stephen, for example, when we celebrate the first person to give their life for their Christian faith in joyful imitation of their Lord. Less joyful is Holy Innocents’ Day when we commemorate the massacre of the Holy Innocents (which lands on either December 28 or 29 in most Christian traditions). For those with any inclination to remember these Twelve Days of Christmas in so far as they are able, the feasts run up through January 5 with Twelfth Night on the Eve of Epiphany (or Theophany in the East). This January 6 Epiphany or Theophany celebrates the Wise Men in the West and Christ’s baptism in the East.

One simple way to do this is to accumulate some favorite poems and stories that you and your loved ones can revisit throughout these twelve days each year and incorporate into your extra times together with out loud readings or maybe even recitations and theatrical scripts that you perform. My aging father now has nine children, six in-laws, and well over a score of grandchildren. Yesterday, with a substantial portion of this throng assembled in her home, my sister got out an old box of family magazines (“Pressing On”) that we used to publish quarterly or so as a family when I was a boy. Grandchildren and adults alike laughed and even shed a few tears as we read over stories and anecdotes written by various uncles and aunts when we were ages six to sixteen or so.

A big winner was an essay written by my little brother, the second to eldest, when he was thirteen years old. This account was of an especially harrowing homecoming in our lives as a large family that spent eighteen years overseas. After thirty hours in transit with six children (two of them infants), we returned to our home in Kaohsiung, Taiwan missing nine of our fourteen massive suitcases and on the night before a substantial flood filled the bottom half of our home with brown gurgling waters that carried rivers of trash. My thirteen year old little brother wrote a brilliantly sardonic essay called “Milk and Honey” that recounted this saga. It brought us so much laughter these many years later (and after the death of our mother who featured prominently in the story), that I was inspired to write a short three-act play based on the incident. I wrote the short script in about two hours yesterday, and seven brave souls performed a dramatic read through of the script that evening for all the rest of us (as well as a few neighbors and friends who happened to have stopped by). My father and mother were played by two in-laws who handled their delicate roles with a remarkable knowledge of their subjects.

Another feature of these old family “Pressing On” periodicals were countless book reviews, some of them only a few sentences long and written by children as young as five years old. Others, like some of my own at the age of fifteen, were hysterically precocious and long-winded. For all of our foibles and failings as a family (and some were profound), we did enjoy a rich and blessed life of books and stories. And Christmastide, while not a formal season for me growing up, was certainly filled with even an extra abundance of this enjoyment of stories, songs, and times together. I was fortunate enough to marry into another family as well where such traditions were treasured. In addition to much delight in books, poetry, and storytelling, my wife grew up watching A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge every Christmas Eve before bed.

A book that I have revisited this year myself and which I recommend as a strong candidate for revisiting with loved ones regularly is The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Many have observed that this book is made up of two distinct stories back to back. The first of these, ends, famously, with an unexpected Christmas party in a lost home that is rediscovered literally under the feet of the cold and weary travelers, Rat and Mole. Surveying the structure of the book shows that this development is not accidental. At the center, the chapters between these two stories are a little scrambled. However, if we take the twelve chapters and consider them in two sets of five (on either side of two dynamic chapters that form a middle), we get a matching pair of journey tales that both end with a homecoming. These returns are highlighted in both of the final chapter titles: “Dulce Domum” (“Sweetly at Home”) and “The Return of Ulysses.” Both restorations of home also feature a great feast or banquet.

Turning to the two central chapters between the two sets of homecoming tales, they each involve a very different kind of lost child: a wayward Toad and an adventuresome young otter (named Portly). These two lost children also point to parallels between Badger and Pan as their two rescuers and as the two most authoritative and stable figures in the stories. Every other character in the stories, in contrast, is uprooted at least once—either lost, or searching, or filled with some kind of wanderlust. While Mole and Toad differ in almost every imaginable way, they are the two literal runaways whose adventures shape each of the two main stories. Aside from Badger, however, everyone has their period of wandering: Rat goes in search of Mole a few times and is briefly entranced by the stories of a Mediterranean Sea Rat (coinciding with Toad’s imprisonment as the one aside of the second main narrative). Otter sleeps outdoors for several nights in hopes of finding his lost son. Toad, of course, is obsessed with a desire to conquer the open road and runs away which leads to his imprisonment and his long, comedic escape and final restoration.

Despite the obvious love for adventure and outdoor living, a delight in home is the strongest theme across the entire collection of stories. All of the characters are united in the end with the great banquet at Toad Hall called by Badger to celebrate the restoration of their friend to his ancestral home. This all explicitly recalls, of course, both pagan and biblical stories of exile and homecoming. Chapter five (“Dulce Domum” or “Sweetly at Home”) is even linked directly to Christmas, that most domestic of seasons (at least in it’s popular reception over recent centuries), and the final chapter is named for Ulysses (the Roman variant of Odysseus the wandering trickster who is finally restored to his home and his family only after a great battle).

“Dulce Domum” opens with the cold explorers returning home after sundown and peering into windows of human homes as they pass through a small village. These descriptions of family life beside warm firesides are evocative and set us up for when Mole suddenly senses that he is passing by his own home that he has not seen for many months. In a heartbreaking and then heartwarming sequence, Mole is taken entirely by surprise as he senses his lost home nearby and tries to stop Rat who is marching steadily through the snow far ahead of him. Mole finally gives up and resumes his march with Rat. However, when Rat finds out what has happened, he insists on turning around and finding Mole’s old home. When they do find it, Mole is overcome by regret for having brought Rat to this small, cold, and dusty old place on such a bitter night. Rat, however, rallies and persists in encouraging Mole and in helping to find what is needed so they not only enjoy a glorious evening together but end up entertaining an entire troupe of caroling field mice for an extemporaneous Christmas feast.

The only two direct references to Christmas in The Wind in the Willows are in reference to field mice. They are the ones who have a traditional carol to sing composed by an ancient ancestor mouse:

Who were the first to cry NOWELL?

Animals all, as it befell,

In the stable where they did dwell!

Joy shall be theirs in the morning!

Such overt references, however, are not the only Christmas images in Grahame’s story. In the central pair of independent chapters about lost “children” (Toad and Portly the young otter), we have what is typically understood as the mystical center of the book: chapter seven called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” This poetic chapter title has been used and referenced in a dizzying variety of ways within popular culture, and the contents is unarguably the most lyrical and awe-filled within the book. This chapter is also explicitly wild and pagan in contrast to the domestic and Christian images of Christmas caroling and feasting. Almost two decades before publishing The Wind in the Willows (1908), a younger Kenneth Grahame published a collection of short stories called Pagan Papers (1893). This mysterious figure of the god Pan was obviously not thrown into The Wind in the Willows on a whim. Nonetheless, there is a strong Christmas image even here in Grahame’s moment depicting the worship of a pagan god.

Illustration by Troy Howell from “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (1992 edition of The Wind in the Willows).

The image of a small otter child curled up and asleep between Pan’s hooves as the mighty god plays his pipes is one that cannot help but recall several aspects of the nativity. Grahame, by all accounts, was not a churchgoer himself, but he clearly loved the Christmas story and wrote profoundly of our need for God and for home in a world characterized by lost children of all varieties. In the remainder of these twelve days of Christmas, may we attend closely enough in each moment together to realize that our own lost home is not so far below the surface of all that we might take for granted. It might even be just beneath our feet as Mole and Rat discovered, or we may even find the lost child lying contented and sleeping between the hooves of mighty Pan. Homelessness and homecoming are strangely intermixed in Christmastide, as the God of all creation becomes a homeless child and enters this strange lost history with all of us so that we might find, even here, that we do have a home.

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