Thursday, December 22, 2022

Christmas Poems 2022

This is my seventh (kind of) annual Christmas Poem post. I never got around to writing one in 2018. You can read the others here:


Christmas Poems 2015

Christmas Poems 2016

Christmas Poems 2017

Christmas Poems 2019

Christmas Poems 2020 

Christmas Poems 2021


And on a related note, my Christmas Carol post.


Other posts on Christmas:


The Christmas Wars, Or, How To Use Christmas As An Excuse To Be A Jerk

Night Shift At The Hospital on Christmas Eve

The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens

Reading A Christmas Carol With My Kids





Taken near Reno, Nevada, last year.


I quote the following from last year’s post, as I do not think I can improve on it:


In part, this series has been my way of wrestling with the trauma of the past several years, which have brought the loss of our longtime church, loss of connection to my former faith tradition, estrangement from my parents (over religion and politics as well as the way those toxic ideologies have impacted my own family), and of course, the swerve of my country toward fascism and theofascism, driven by those of my former religious tradition. Christianity in the sense of following Christ has been replaced by Republicanity and, honestly, Ku Klux Klanity. 


Since Christmas has long been a favorite holiday for me, this has been rough. I miss the days when I could celebrate wholeheartedly, and feel a connection to others through that celebration. As a kid, family gatherings were something I looked forward to, so it was devastating that after I grew up, they became increasingly a battleground of family politics and the culture wars - and a chance for certain family members to bully my wife yet again - so we stopped going a number of years ago. I still enjoy what we have with the kids and with my brother and family, but there is always a certain bittersweet element to it, because of the losses that have come. 


Fortunately, I am not the only one with this experience, whether among my friends, or the poets of the past. There are a plethora of expressions that have spoken to me over the years, and they have tended to hold up pretty well. (See my carol post above, for what the prophets of the 19th Century had to say about slavery, for example.) So, as I have most years, I kept my eyes open for good Christmas season poems, and chose four to feature. (Don’t worry about the ones that didn’t make the cut - those are carefully noted for future years.) 


For this year, I would like to start with Phillip Larkin’s first published poem, written when he was all of 16 years old. I too wrote some poetry at that age, for school assignments. Mine was - to put it kindly - not as good as this one. 


Winter Nocturne by Philip Larkin

(first published poem, written at age 16)


Mantled in grey, the dusk steals slowly in,

Crossing the dead, dull fields with footsteps cold.

The rain drips drearily; night's fingers spin

A web of drifting mist o'er wood and wold,

As quiet as death. The sky is silent too,

Hard as granite and as fixed as fate.

The pale pond stands; ringed round with rushes few

And draped with leaning trees, it seems to wait

But for the coming of the winter night

Of deep December; blowing o'er the graves

Of faded summers, swift as the wind in flight

Ripples its silent face with lapping waves.

The rain falls still: bowing, the woods bemoan;

Dark night creeps in, and leaves the world alone.


Here where I live, we tend to get tule fog (aka convection fog) during the darkest part of winter, after a rain. It has become less common through a combination of climate change and the paving over of the farmland that used to be the bed of Tule Lake a couple hundred years ago. But for some reason, this year has had a run of some pretty solid fog. Most of the last two weeks at my house the fog hasn’t burned off. I am prone to seasonal affective disorder, so this bothers me a bit, while my wife loves this weather. To each their own.


In any case, Larkin captures the feeling of the fog, at dusk (or dawn), with the odd silence that the thick air brings. I love the line about “blowing o’er the graves of faded summers.” 


The poem is also in my favorite poetic form, the sonnet. In this case, an English (aka Shakespearean) Sonnet. The rhyme scheme is the usual ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. In breaking from the usual form, Larkin doesn’t put one single idea neatly into every quatrain. Instead, until the final couplet, the quatrains are enjambed, the sentences broken over the end and into the next. This and other stylistic flourishes already show the way to Larkin’s mature style. 


Next up is William Carlos Williams. 


Burning the Christmas Greens 

(by William Carlos Williams)


Their time past, pulled down

cracked and flung to the fire

—go up in a roar


All recognition lost, burnt clean

clean in the flame, the green

dispersed, a living red,

flame red, red as blood wakes

on the ash—


and ebbs to a steady burning

the rekindled bed become

a landscape of flame


At the winter’s midnight

we went to the trees, the coarse

holly, the balsam and

the hemlock for their green


At the thick of the dark

the moment of the cold’s

deepest plunge we brought branches

cut from the green trees


to fill our need, and over

doorways, about paper Christmas

bells covered with tinfoil

and fastened by red ribbons


we stuck the green prongs

in the windows hung

woven wreaths and above pictures

the living green. On the


mantle we built a green forest

and among those hemlock

sprays put a herd of small

white deer as if they


were walking there. All this!

and it seemed gentle and good

to us. Their time past,

relief! The room bare. We


stuffed the dead grate

with them upon the half burnt out

log’s smouldering eye, opening

red and closing under them


and we stood there looking down.

Green is a solace

a promise of peace, a fort

against the cold (though we


did not say so) a challenge

above the snow’s

hard shell. Green (we might

have said) that, where


small birds hide and dodge

and lift their plaintive

rallying cries, blocks for them

and knocks down


the unseeing bullets of

the storm. Green spruce boughs

pulled down by a weight of



Violence leaped and appeared.

Recreant! roared to life

as the flame rose through and

our eyes recoiled from it.


In the jagged flames green

to red, instant and alive. Green!

those sure abutments . . . Gone!

lost to mind


and quick in the contracting

tunnel of the grate

appeared a world! Black

mountains, black and red—as


yet uncolored—and ash white,

an infant landscape of shimmering

ash and flame and we, in

that instant, lost,


breathless to be witnesses,

as if we stood

ourselves refreshed among

the shining fauna of that fire.


Williams is such a master with color. Green, red, black, white, and all the shades and nuances that go with them. When I read this one recently, I was astonished by its power. I don’t know that I need to say much of anything about it other than that. 


How about another sonnet? Why not? In this case, a rather unexpected author - mystery writer Agathe Christie. 


Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

(Agatha Christie)


Gold, frankincense and myrrh … As Mary stands

Beside the Cross, those are the words that beat

Upon her brain, and make her clench her hands,

On Calvary, in noonday’s burning heat.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi kneel

By simple shepherds all agog with joy,

And Angels praising God who doth reveal,

His love for men in Christ, the new born Boy.


Where now the incense? Where the kingly gold?

For Jesus only bitter myrrh and woe.

No kingly figure hangs here - just a son

In pain and dying … How shall Mary know

That with his sigh “ ‘Tis finished,” all is told;

Then - in that moment - Christ’s reign has begun? 


The sonnet form is a bit of a hybrid here. It is mostly formatted like an Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet, with two quatrains and a sextet, and the sextet follows one of the usual forms. There is the turn at the ninth line. But the two quatrains use the rhyme scheme of an English sonnet, not the ABBAABBA of the traditional Italian form. 


I don’t tend to think of Christie as a poet, but my wife owns a Christmas book of hers that contains both prose and poetry. As with this one, the rest of the book is pretty standard religious Christmas stuff, written in an era when it didn’t carry as much baggage, perhaps. 


I was, however, struck by the simple truth here that gets so much lip service yet is so seldom understood as a fundamental truth to live by. These days, those who name the name of Christ here in my country are beating their plowshares into swords in the name of scorched earth culture war, seeking power and wealth and privilege at the expense of those different from them. 


But both the Nativity and the Cross carry a truly radical countercultural meaning. The Divine didn’t come to earth as a conquering warrior, slaying all who opposed him. He didn’t establish the usual kingdom that we humans so adore, with pomp and power and violence. Instead, the Divine reached to earth in the form of a helpless infant, the most human of humans, and, having preached a radical non-violent, anti-power, anti-wealth, and boundary smashing gospel - the “Good Spell,” was murdered for his trouble by the ever-brutalizing marriage of purity-based religion and law-and-order government. 


But, in the great twist that underlies everything Christ stood for, it was that moment when everything was darkest that everything changed. I haven’t believed in the relatively modern doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement for a long time, in part because it fails to have any connection to the radical teachings of Christ. It merely reinforces the same power based, violence based view of reality that was epitomized by the Roman Empire (and every evil authoritarian system before and since.) 


What Christie sets forth here is an older view - that the very act of murdering the man who stood for this revolutionary kingdom turned out to be the beginning of the revolution. To quote the Gospel of Luke:


Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.


You will not find the Kingdom in political power. You will not find the Kingdom among the rich and powerful. You will not find the Kingdom in a church building. (That’s the worst place to look, actually.) You will not find the Kingdom among those asserting their privilege. 


But the Kingdom is there. It is in our midst, if only we would put down our swords and look. 


And, on that note, let’s finish up with Countee Cullen, one of the Harlem Renaissance poets that opened my eyes to a new world when I discovered them in high school. 


Christus Natus Est 

(by Countee Cullen)


In Bethlehem

On Christmas morn,

The lowly gem

Of love was born.

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


Bright in her crown

Of fiery star,

Judea’s tow

Shone from afar:

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


While beasts in stall,

On bended knee,

Did carol all

Most joyously:

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


For bird and beast

He did not come

But for the least 

Of mortal scum,

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


Who lies in ditch?

Who begs his bread?

Wh has no stitch

For back or head?

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


Who wakes to weep,

Lies down to mourn?

Who in his sleep

Withdraws from scorn?

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


Ye outraged dust,

On field and plain,

To feed the lust

Of madmen slain:

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


The manger still 

Outshines the throne;

Christ must and will

Come to his own.

Hosannah! Christus Natus Est.


It starts off pretty conventional, right? Sounds like a carol of some sort. But then: “But for the least / Of mortal scum” - that took a turn. And from there, Cullen makes sure that his point is understood: the Nativity didn’t happen so that the comfortable would be made more comfortable. Rather, Christ came for the outcasts. The Kingdom is for you, he said. Blessed are the poor. 


This poem was written during World War One, a time of unprecedented and senseless slaughter. Cullen was looking for a way to express hope in a time of hopelessness - so many dying because madmen were seeking glory and power and the other things that lead men to slaughter each other. 


But in the end, and I believe this must be true or humankind will perish, the manger outshines the throne. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and pointed us toward the Upside Down Kingdom, where every hierarchy, every exercise of power, every act of violence will eventually be overcome. 


At this time of year, as the solstice flips the days from shrinking to growing, I think there is a sort of brilliance in the decision thousands of years ago to combine the celebration of the end of the solar year and the beginning of a new one with the celebration of another new beginning - and the hope of brighter days ahead. 


May the peace and hope of the season be with you. 

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