The Best of Christmas Poetry: A Festive Garland of Verse
What follows is a gift of Christmas verse to lighten the heart and enlighten the mind.
If I were to package together all my favorite Christmas poems, wrapping them up for my friends and placing them under the tree, which would I choose? Having asked myself this question, I set about answering it. What follows is, therefore, my imaginary Christmas gift for my friends; a gift of Christmas verse to lighten the heart and enlighten the mind.
I would begin, appropriately enough, with a little poetic license, allowing myself the liberty to include a couple of winter poems that are not strictly on a Christmas theme, much as we allow ourselves to listen to Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland during the festive season, neither of which mentions Christmas specifically but both of which are full of the Christmas spirit. I would, therefore, indulge myself with the inclusion of Swinburne’s marvelous “Winter in Northumberland” and Francis Thompson’s “To a Snowflake,” the latter of which begins with a series of questions, addressed to the snowflake, asking who could have created something so beautiful, and ends with the snowflake itself responding that God had shaped it “from curled silver vapour … with his hammer of wind and his grave of frost.”
Moving into the fullness of the season, I would have to include some of the anonymous verse, written in the Middle Ages, praising the Virgin for her role in the Nativity, such as “The Rose that Bore Jesu” and “Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose.” I would also squeeze in the hymn to the Virgin from Dante’s Paradiso, translated by Longfellow as “Thou, Virgin Mother, Daughter of Thy Son.” I would then include some slightly later anonymous verse, probably dating from the late 15th century, such as the “Carol” which sings of a maiden who is “matchless” to whom her Son descends as dewfall, and which ends with the matchless concluding stanza:
Mother and maiden
Was never none but she;
Well may such a lady,
God’s mother be.
Another late 15th-century verse which would find itself packaged for Christmas would be the wonderful “Cradle Song,” a hymn or lullaby to the Christ Child which asks “young Jesus sweet” to prepare his cradle in the poet’s soul: “And I shall rock thee in my heart / And never more from thee depart.” From the same period, I would also find room for William Dunbar’s “On the Nativity of Chris.t”
Moving forward a full century, I would add two poems by the English Jesuit and Martyr, St. Robert Southwell. First, and predictably, would be the well-known and much anthologized “Burning Babe,” to which I would add the lesser-known “A Child My Choice,” which begins thus:
Let folly praise that fancy loves, I praise and love that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand no deed defiled.
And ends with a prayer to the Christ Child:
Almighty babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die.
Moving forward still further, this time to the 19th century, I would include Coleridge’s translation from the Latin of “The Virgin’s Cradle-Hymn,” which he’d discovered in a village in Germany, as well as “A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti, better-known as “In the bleak mid-winter.” I would complete my choice of what might be called “Christmas Day” poetry by moving to the late 20th century and the understated tension of R.S. Thomas’ “Hill Christmas” in which weather-beaten Welsh shepherds hear love cry “in their heart’s manger.”
Having arrived at the night divine of our dear Savior’s birth, we are most certainly not finished with our celebration of Christmas. On the contrary, we will now follow “The Journey of the Magi” with T. S. Eliot, pausing on the way to listen to Francis Thompson’s “New Year’s Chimes” (“Tintinnabulous, tuned to ring / A multitudinous-single thing”), until we arrive with Belloc on “Twelfth Night,” a haunting poem, full of a Yeatsian yearning betwixt faith and faerie, which evokes the mystical sense of the exile of life:
The frozen way those people trod
It led toward the Mother of God;
Perhaps if I had travelled with them
I might have come to Bethlehem.
Nor does our journey end with the arrival of the Magi. After basking with them in the epiphanous glow emanating from the Babe in the manger, we continue right through the fullness of the traditional Christmas season until the Presentation of Our Lord, or Candlemas, on Feb. 2. And before we get there, we will pause with Tennyson on St. Agnes’ Eve (Jan. 20), as he lifts his heart to God amidst the snow glistening on the roof of a convent:
Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes:
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to the Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.
And so at last we come to the end of the Christmas Season with the celebration of the Lord’s Presentation. The final gift to be added to my festive garland of verse, which will be packaged with love and placed under the tree, is “Candlemas” by Maurice Baring. It is an absolute favorite of mine, even amidst such an array of favorites, to which I am going to show due deference by allowing it to bring down the curtain on these festive musings:
The town is half awake; the nave, the choir,
Are dark, and all is dim, within, without;
But every chapel fringed with the devout,
Is bright with February flowers of fire.
At Mass, a thousand years ago in Rome,
Thus Priest, thus Server at the altar bowed;
Thus knelt, thus blessed itself the kneeling crowd,
At Dawn, within the secret catacomb.
Thus shall they meet for Mass, until the day
The glory of the world shall pass away.
And beauty far away from human reach,
And power, and wealth beyond all mortal price,
And glory that outsoars all thought, all speech,
Speak in the whispered words of sacrifice.