This is my fifth (kind of) annual Christmas Poem post. I never got around to writing one in 2018. You can read the others here:
And on a related note, my Christmas Carol post.
Other posts on Christmas:
First up is one by Thomas Hardy, who had a...complex relationship with religion and therefore Christmas. This particular poem isn’t as cynical or bitter as some of his other, later Christmas poems - written during World War One, so perfectly understandable. Watching supposed “Christian Nations” burn and gas each other to the ground doesn’t exactly give one a Christmas spirit. But this poem captures the wonder of the idea of Christmas, a miracle where the Divine reached out to humanity.
By Thomas Hardy
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
This year has, to say the least, been rough. A global pandemic has killed over a million and a half people, and devastated many more through lingering illness, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness. Here in the United States, a lot of the suffering was preventable, but happened because a certain president and a certain party which is now just a personality cult ignored, denied, refused to act, and continues to refuse to assist the vulnerable ordinary people suffering, choosing instead to enrich themselves and the ultra-wealthy. It is, unfortunately, the American Way these days. But, as Langston Hughes pointed out in this next poem, written in 1930, it isn’t really new. Our approach has long been to “solve” problems by blowing shit up, rather than helping the needy.
by Langston Hughes
Merry Christmas, China
From the gun-boats in the river,
Ten-inch shells for Christmas gifts,
And peace on earth forever.
Merry Christmas, India,
To Gandhi in his cell,
From righteous Christian England,
Ring out, bright Christmas bell!
Ring Merry Christmas, Africa,
From Cairo to the Cape!
Ring Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
(For murder and rape.)
Ring Merry Christmas, Haiti!
(And drown the voodoo drums –
We'll rob you to the Christian hymns
Until the next Christ comes.)
Ring Merry Christmas, Cuba!
(While Yankee domination
Keeps a nice fat president
In a little half-starved nation.)
And to you down-and-outers,
("Due to economic laws")
Oh, eat, drink, and be merry
With a bread-line Santa Claus –
While all the world hails Christmas,
While all the church bells sway!
While, better still, the Christian guns
Proclaim this joyous day!
While holy steel that makes us strong
Spits forth a mighty Yuletide song:
SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere!
Let Merry Christmas GAS the air!
After that bitter pill, we all need something a bit more hopeful. I haven’t posted about G. K. Chesterton for a while - there are so many books to read, and I got away from him the last few years. But every time I return, I am struck again by the reasons he has long been on my “Dream Dinner Party” invite list. He is so full of good spirits, of good will, of love and friendship for everyone, that one can overlook some of his retrograde (and of their time) views. (And to be fair to G. K., he was the first to assert that he could very well be wrong.)
I particularly love what he does in this poem. Chesterton was Catholic, but he viewed God as bigger than Catholicism - indeed, bigger than Christianity itself. The draw of the human to the Divine - to transcendence itself - encompasses the entire universe. So many of his books (The Ball and the Cross, The Flying Inn, Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Man Who Was Thursday, to name a few) express that idea of God being bigger - and a lot less tame and understood - than organized religion tends to make them out to be. And an obsession with who is “in” and who isn’t is a waste of time - Chesterton was good friends with atheists like George Bernard Shaw, and believed that people like him were closer to the kingdom of god than those who simply didn’t care about transcendence at all.
Back to the poem. Chesterton starts with the idea that Christ and his parents were in essence homeless at the time of the birth, and that in a place where the rest of us feel at home. And yet, we have this yearning for something more than ordinary earthly existence. We are not truly at rest here. At the end, we all come to eternity (in whatever form you believe that happens), and our ultimate rest is “An older place than Eden, and a taller town than Rome.” Our human existence, our religious edifices, all of that will give way to the ultimate reality of the universe.
[On a kind of related note, Peter Enns did a fantastic podcast recently on how our modern understanding of the vastness of time and space needs to affect our theology and our understanding of God. Chesterton, living when Darwin had upended everything, appears to have embraced the idea of evolution, but felt it was relatively unimportant compared to the greater picture. I wish more of our modern Evangelicals would embrace this approach.]
Enjoy the poem, and Chesterton’s expansive view of the Divine and the beautiful mystery of Christmas.
The House of Christmas
By G. K. Chesterton
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.
This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Every year, I keep my eyes open for poems for this series, both in my own reading, and in the stuff that friends and writers I follow post. This little gem made me smile. If it doesn’t do the same for you, you might have a heart of cold, black coal.
“Little Tree” by e.e. cummings
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy…
Christmas Day in Death Valley National Park last year.