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The Best of Christmas Poetry: A Festive Garland of Verse

Here is my imaginary Christmas gift for my friends; a gift of Christmas verse to lighten the heart and enlighten the mind.

(Image: Paola Chaaya | Unsplash.com)

If I were to package together all my favourite 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 graver 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 also 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 Christ”.

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 nineteenth 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 twentieth century and the understated tension of R. S. Thomas’s “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 Saviour’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 February 2. And before we get there, we will pause with Tennyson on St. Agnes’ Eve (January 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 favourite of mine, even amidst such an array of favourites, 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.


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About Joseph Pearce 20 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

1 Comment

  1. This heightened emotional true story/encounter relates to an ongoing commitment to love and friendship, that invited me the writer, unknowingly at the time to partake in that love. In that it facilitated a dying mother of an adopted mentally handicapped child, the means to convey to him, her ongoing love for him, and that of his deceased natural mother. In knowing that he would be bereft of any outside help, she gave him the means to continue alone.

    I saw ‘Grace’

    It was close to Christmas time in the mid-sixties, that while working as a window cleaner on a poor housing estate, on the outskirts of Leeds, England. When I encountered a mother with her child.

    We heard the clatter of your ladder amongst our chatter
    Ma said you must be fed, such ice and snow, come warm your hand and toe
    Two years never in arrears, open back door, kitchen never shown before
    Odd snow flake, yes I will take a break
    Kitchen door cold concrete floor
    Now lounge, burst of warmth, rocking chair, a flame sat there
    All was bright but she possessed no sight
    A place was set treated as a special guest
    Best of fare before my chair
    Eighty four probably was her score
    Sunken eye but never dry
    Closed lid a tear did skid
    Quite repose handkerchief to eye and nose
    Silver groomed hair, full chair
    Paleface, blouse of taste, cameo in place
    Cardigan pale blue botany too
    Apron, tweed skirt wide of girth
    Manicured hand wedding band, hardly shown puffed bone
    Heavy leg inactivity it said, bursting shoe
    Water retention I am sure she knew
    Albert here is my joy ‘I was given a baby boy’
    I have been repaid in full, such a loving son
    Eleven pence to the shilling but he is always willing
    A heart of gold is set in that abode
    Singe of tinge set in time her heart was mine
    It was true he reflects you
    Movement of chair, Albert was there
    Cup of tea helping her see secured to knee
    No need for grace all here is in its place
    I have a tale to tell, it’s for Albert as well
    The Queen’s Hotel ? ‘Yes I know it well’
    Albert’s mother worked there as well
    My best friend right to the end
    As chambermaids we were paid
    Both from school, we did not want to work the loom
    Lots of fun, more like home if the truth be known
    Grace met Albert’s dad when she helped him unpack his bag
    Manchester way he would stay more than a day
    Real good looking she would wait for him coming
    Black curly hair blue eyed stare
    Good looker front page cover
    Cuff links, spats, moustache, but not brash
    Pigeon chest Albert did attest
    When Albert was on the way, he never came to stay
    Bill was my man, he knew that Grace was in a jam
    He did not want to know, Grace to a boarding house had to go
    Matted hair in despair, no doctor or nurse, but Grace never did curse
    She will not survive the day an old midwife did say
    She called me to her side and begged that with me her baby would reside
    She was my best friend, I promised that her baby I would defend
    She passed away on Albert’s birthday
    I carried Albert straight home
    Bill went mad he said he was not the dad
    I held firm, on this I would not turn
    Albert is not all he should be
    A difficult birth had caused this you see
    But for fifty years we have held true
    Grace, myself and Albert have seen it through
    My time is soon to come, I must leave my adorable son
    I have taught him all he needs to know
    For when to the church yard I must surely go
    Albert tried to top my tea, but back to work I had to be
    One two or three the years I cannot see
    Christmas time one more time
    A wedding soon to be mine
    Park Square registrations are made there
    As I turn to leave, commotion, high voice of emotion

    ‘Mother said this is what I have to do I must see this through’

    Face to face I saw ‘Grace’

    As I once again reflect on this incident, I now remember that Albert some time previously had come out of the house, while I was working and asked me if I were a Catholic. And because of this I now assume that he and his mother were also hence the prepared table, which was set before me. This was his mother’s attempt to create solidarity between us. Sadly, today I now know that his mother’s attempt to create solidarity, fell upon my dead ears, as *bereft of any outside help* he had to register his mother’s death alone.

    But all is not lost if you capture the moment that I did not.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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