The Christmas season officially arrived at 7:12 a.m. (CST) Tuesday when I heard Louis Armstrong on the car radio “talking to all the kids from all over the world at Christmas time” – that is, reciting Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “T’was the Night before Christmas.”
Away from my kids, Christmas had thus far felt abstract, like Election Day. Tinsel and trees went on sale in the drugstore before Halloween, when three holidays (including Thanksgiving) shared shelf space, but that didn’t count. Snow in Houston is a rumor. Houses on my street have been decorated, but most are strung with white lights, a Unitarian custom more sepulchral than festive.
Later in the day I was reading Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs (1979), his first book of autobiography, when I happened upon another reminder of the season:
“The Christmas beetles and cowboy beetles held jamborees around the street-lights, battering themselves against the white enamel reflectors and falling into the street. They lay on their backs with their legs struggling. When you picked them up they pulsed with the frustrated strength of their clenched wing muscles.”
The Christmas beetle was new to me, a six-legged jewel native to James’ birthplace, Australia. Some thirty-five species belong to the genus Anoplognathus and earn the common name by entering the adult stage of their life cycle at Yuletide. Despite their beauty, they’re deemed pests because of their bottomless appetite for eucalyptus foliage. They are creatures of the antipodal summer solstice, corresponding to our June bugs.
After a little searching I found another Australian poet, Les Murray, had included a poem titled “Christmas Beetle” in his first collection, The Ilex Tree (1965):
“From the cool night this glossy stranger came,
Attracted by the candle’s yellow flame,
Blundering in jerky flight around our room.
Dazed by the light his bronze wings noisily fanned,
And lest he burn into an odorous fume
I caught and held him prickling in my hand
And threw him back into his home, the night.
A pebble dropped and then whirred into flight.”
I like Murray’s sense of seasonal hospitality. Many would swat a bug into a smear on the wall. Instead, the poet takes him safely home. The final phrase puns, appropriately, on “word into flight.” Christmas is about homecoming, or at least finding a home. Among the most eccentric Christmas poems I know is Marianne Moore’s “To Pierrot Returning to His Orchid,” which is addressed to another sort of arthropod, a spider, and closes like this: “You are here; apparently / Content to be my guest — Say so. / It is Christmastime.”