Beyond 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: Holiday Poetry for the Harried
For many adults Christmas has become a rote observance of traditions wholly estranged from their original meanings. For others it is a sort of annual moral mulligan, a time to shower attention, gifts and good cheer on those who rightly deserve those things year-round. For still others it is a time to take stock of their lives—to measure themselves against the pervasive messages of the season and to inevitably judge themselves lacking.
The message of every “very special” Christmas Special on TV is that Christmas is not at all about the gifts and tinselly excess, but the advertisements strewn liberally throughout make an utterly convincing counter-argument.
I’m not here to tell you what Christmas is or should be, nor could I if I wanted to. Like most folks, my own relationship to it is too cluttered with countervailing memories, expectations and ethical qualms for that. I know there are many who take the message of the season to heart, who give and do good works selflessly, and who manage to carry its message throughout the year. If this world is to be saved, then it is they who will save it and they for whom it should be saved.
All I can offer the rest of you is this reassurance: your conflicting feelings toward the Holidays are legitimate and you are far from alone. It is only when you allow yourself to skate over those feelings as if they didn't matter, or give in to the urge to smother them in twinkly lights, 80 proof cheer and expensive gimcracks so as not to recognize them that you do any harm.
What poetry does for me all year long and what the best Christmas poetry can do for us all if we need it to, is to let us own our lives, with all their complexities and ambiguities. A good poem connects us to a shared human experience. It places us in context with history and tradition, and reminds us of the importance of our individual roles in both. Good Christmas poetry I think shows us the secular value of the holiday--that when approached with the right mindset, it gives us a chance to look at life as a whole through the particulars of our rituals.
Happy Holidays to everyone, be good and be safe. Thanks for reading.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation by W. S. Merwin
Twelfth Night / William Shakespeare
Poetry Foundation [website] Christmas poems
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem / Maya Angelou
Christmas Poems / edited by John Hollander and J. D. McClatchy
A Child’s Christmas in Wales / Dylan Thomas
Nativity Poems / Joseph Brodsky
O! Holy Night: Masterworks of Christmas Poetry / edited by Johann M. Moser
Oxford Book of Christmas Poems / edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark