The gate creaked behind me as I entered the churchyard. A rabbit scurried through the gravestones. I was heading for the holly tree – that dark green tower, lit with red berries. It was a rare frosty morning in this winter of wet and warm, and the ground crunched beneath my feet. Finding some holly leaves without thorns, I gathered them into my sack, careful not to dislodge their berries. Next, I headed for the yews, and, watched by a robin from its Christmas-card perch in an apple tree, took a few boughs. They’ll look great on the mantelpiece. They’re likely to be the oldest thing in our house, and the whole village.
Human antiques can’t compete with a yew bough; some churchyard yews are well over a millennium old. I’ve been gathering our Christmas decorations here since we moved to the village many years ago, and over time little has changed except that now I know some of the names on the gravestones, some of them very well.
The light was fading; time to head home. But, first, the robin carolled me to where the ivy grew the thickest. I gathered it eagerly. The places where we bury our dead are those most full of life. When the days are at their shortest, our hopes are at their highest.
Guy Consolmagno SJ is director of the Vatican Observatory.
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