This is my third annual Christmas Poem post. You can read the others here:
And on a related note, last year’s Christmas Carol post.
Other posts on Christmas:
The previous Christmas poem posts included Ogden Nash, who apparently loved writing about Christmas. In a curmudgeonly way, of course.
Complaining about Christmas is as traditional as Christmas itself, from what I can tell. The Puritans whined about it, and went so far as to ban it during Oliver Cromwell’s government. This went exactly as well as you would expect, and was one reason the Puritans lost power soon after Cromwell’s death. Dickens railed against the commercialization of Christmas, most notably in A Christmas Carol, which remains one of the best sermons ever written. (And one that American Evangelicals seem increasingly determined to ignore…)
Ogden Nash too felt that Christmas was too commercial. This poem was written in the 1950s, which, ironically, is the era that today’s curmudgeons hold up as the last pure era in history. Apparently, the golden age exists only in our own faulty memories.
I Remember Yule by Ogden Nash
I guess I am just an old fogey.
I guess I am headed for the last roundup, so come along little dogey.
I can remember when winter was wintery and summer was estival;
I can even remember when Christmas was a family festival.
Yes, I can remember when Christmas was an occasion for fireside rejoicing
and general good will.
And now it is just the day that it’s only X shopping days until.
I can remember when we knew Christmas was coming without being reminded
by the sponsor
And the announcer.
What, five times a week at 8:15 P.M., do the herald angels sing?
That a small deposit now will buy you an option on a genuine diamond ring.
What is the message we receive with Good King Wenceslas?
That if we rush to the corner of Ninth and Main we can get that pink mink
housecoat very inexpensceslaus.
I know what came upon the midnight clear to our backward parents,
but what comes to us?
A choir imploring us to Come all ye faithful and steal a 1939 convertible
at psychoneurotic prices from Grinning Gus.
Christmas is a sitting duck for sponsors, it’s so commercial,
And yet so noncontroversial.
Well, you reverent sponsors redolent of frankincense and myrrh, come
smear me with bear–grease and call me an un-American hellion.
This is my declaration of independence and rebellion.
This year I’m going to disconnect everything electrical in the house and spend
the Christmas season like Tiny Tim and Mr. Pickwick;
You make me sickwick.
The more things change…
I myself am no big fan of commercialism. I do love Christmas, however, and many of the modern trappings. I love the music. (Most of it. Could definitely do without “Christmas Shoes.”) I enjoyed playing in the local orchestra when Mannheim Steamroller came to Bakersfield this year. The kids and I put thousands of lights on our house. We watch cheesy Christmas movies. I love finding presents for family. And don’t get me started on the food.
But all these are empty without the real core of the holiday. As a Christian, the incarnation is a beautiful and central belief. God came and became one of us, suffering as we do, and triumphing over sin and death. But the life and teachings of Christ are not just about a baby born, or an ultimate sacrifice. In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ himself announces his ministry as follows:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
A bit radical, yes? Pretty much the complete opposite of the political goals of American Evangelicalism, I would say.
On that note, let me introduce Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Studdert Kennedy was a British chaplain during World War One, known for giving comfort to injured and dying soldiers. (Also cigarettes - times have changed…) The horrors of war haunted him, and he devoted the rest of his life to social justice causes, before working himself to death at age 45. He saw first hand the oppressive factory systems of the 1920s, and wrote a number of books railing against the evils of unbridled capitalism and greed. One of his most famous lines is:
"If finding God in our churches leads to us losing Him in our factories, then better we tear down those churches for God must hate the sight of them."
These words still ring true today. When he died, thousands of the poor flocked to his funeral. But he was denied burial at Westminster Abbey because of his political views.
His poems are probably better known than his prose today. I was introduced to this one by a Symphony colleague, at a Lenten concert earlier this year.
When Jesus Came to Birmingham by G. A. Studdert Kennedy
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do, '
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
This so perfectly expresses how I feel about the social darwinism that has been wholeheartedly embraced by most of those who claim my faith. Oh, we don’t kill people anymore. We just deny them healthcare, living wages, protection against abusive employers; turn away those fleeing war and poverty; look away as they are killed by the police; and more. Oh, it’s not really killing them, just letting nature take its course…
And then we sit in our churches and pretend that God is there, but not where the working poor live. Maybe it is time to tear down our churches.
For some reason, I never read Madeleine L’Engle when I was a kid, despite the fact that we owned A Wrinkle In Time. You can read my thoughts on discovering it and A Wind In The Door if you like. Anyway, I hadn’t really thought of her as a poet, but somewhere I ended up running across this little gem.
The Risk of Birth by Madeleine L’Engle
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
I remind myself of this regularly these days, having brought five children into a world more broken than I realized at the time, a world where those naming the name of the Christmas Child would embrace the crushing grip of Rome. And yet, love does take the risk of birth. While we were (and are) still hating each other, Christ came with a radical message of an upside down Kingdom, the very antithesis of Empire. Some of us still seek that.
The final selection for this year is by the “Poet Laureate of Twitter.” No, not the narcissist that got elected. The poet Brian Bilston. (“I am Cinna the poet!”) Anyway, this one has been making the rounds among some of my literary friends, so I thought I would share it. It does make me smile.
Word Needles by Brian Bilston
Anyway, while my heart remains heavy about the state of the world and of American Christianity, my hope remains in that pivotal moment, when God incarnate came to earth to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, and point us to a better way. May His kingdom come!