For a nonbeliever in a secular age, who loves the Nativity and thrills at Santa Claus, Christmas carols are the season’s reliable inducers of exaltation. More than Dickens or the scent of balsam fir, the songs learned from grade-school teachers and Bing Crosby trigger the heightened state of “Christmas spirit,” one unassociated for me with giving or receiving gifts. The songs feel timeless and demand that we actively listen to words we already know by heart. Singing them, I feel an imaginative affinity with first-century Palestine, the court of Elizabeth I and Dickens’ London. Consider the less-than-familiar sixth verse of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”:
“With sudden joy and gladness,
The Shepherds were beguil’d
To see the Babe of Israel,
Before his mother mild,
On them with joy and chearfulness,
Rejoice each Mother’s Child.
And it’s tidings of comfort and joy.”
The drift of the First Christmas is set in order and quietly rendered universal. The “Babe of Israel” and “his mother mild” seamlessly evoke “each Mother’s Child.” And note how, in seven lines, joy, that rarest of emotional commodities, is paired – promised -- three times: “sudden joy and gladness,” “joy and chearfulness” and “comfort and joy.” In the melody, bolstered by the words, I hear two emotional strains – a raucous, masculine sound, thumping and celebrative, and a plaintive, thoughtful echo, almost a foreshadowing of the Babe’s suffering and death. It’s usually sung in E minor, and it’s the song that sets off Scrooge: “Let nothing you dismay.”
Christmas poems, too, reflect the season’s multiple nature. Phyllis McGinley (the first poet I knew, along with Frost and Stevenson), is gently satirical and reminiscent of John Cheever in “City Christmas”:
“Now is the time when the great urban heart
More warmly beats, exiling melancholy.
Turkey comes table d'hôte or à la carte.
Our elevator wears a wreath of holly.
“Mendicant Santa Claus in flannel robes
At every corner contradicts his label,
Alms-asking. We’ve a tree with colored globes
In our apartment foyer, on a table.
“There is a promise – or a threat -- of snow
Noised by the press. We pull our collars tighter.
And twenty thousand doormen hourly grow
Politer and politer and politer.”
And then there’s the most solemn and oblique of Christmas poems, “Christmas Trees,” by Geoffrey Hill:
“Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
“restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
“Against wild reasons of the state,
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.”
From Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (“And all about the Courtly Stable,/Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.”) to Anthony Hecht’s “Illumination” (“The child lies cribbed below, in bestial dark,/Pale as the tiny tips of crocuses/That will find their way to the light through drifts of snow.”), poets have been moved to verse by the glory and mystery of Christmas, sacred and secular. The only poem by Allen Tate I set to memory is the second of his “Sonnets at Christmas.” The first line is almost supreme in the language and always makes me smile:
“Ah, Christ, I love you rings to the wild sky
And I must think a little of the past:
When I was ten I told a stinking lie
That got a black boy whipped; but now at last
The going year, caught in an after-glow,
Reverse like balls englished upon green baize –
Let them return, let the round trumpets blow
The ancient crackle of the Christ`s deep gaze.
Deafened and blind, with senses yet unfound,
Am I, untutored to the after-wit
Of knowledge, knowing a nightmare has no sound;
Therefore with idle hands and head I sit
In late December before the fire’s daze
Punished by crimes of which I would be quit.”