It’s the time of year at my house to get ready for our Christmas celebrations, so I have been working like mad to deck my halls, trim two big trees, and set out multiple Christmas knick-knacks. Finally I began to set up the manger scene, a miniature wooden shed with figures depicting a traditional version of the birth of Christ.
Unwrapping the figures I had packed away last January, I saw that Mother Mary was there, and Joseph, and the cow, the donkey and the sheep. I finished hanging the angel above the manger on its peg, and set up the three wisemen, then unwrapped the manger and put it in position.
But where was the baby?
Somehow, between last Christmas and this one, I had lost the Baby Jesus!
The thought crossed my mind that this whole Christmas panoply–the trees, the lights, the Nativity scene–all was for naught without my central reason for celebrating Christmas: honoring the birth of Christ.
Christian faith may or may not be at the heart of Christmas for you, but if you celebrate Christmas at all, the time surely comes in every season when you stop and ask what all this fuss is for. What is the real meaning of it all?
Christmastime seems to hold out a promise of bringing deeper meaning to our lives. And yet for years, even centuries, many have criticized some Christmas customs for excessive materialism and shallowness, all long before Kris Kringle’s friend Alfred famously bemoaned the modern focus on “commercialism” and “make-a-buck” in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Whence among presents and tinsel, partying and overeating, not to mention struggling too much as usual with the ordinary chores and problems of daily life, is real meaning and transcendence to be found in the winter holiday season?
Here are five poems by poets who asked that very question, ending up with interesting meditations on varied answers. If you are seeking meaning among the material, whether from the Christian or another faith tradition, perhaps one of these Christmas poems can direct you to a small spot of the numinous this season. Click “Continue Reading” to find out what they are.
Other Posts About Christmas Literature:
Robert Frost’s Christmas Trees
From America’s New England poet Robert Frost, writing in 1916, comes the poem “Christmas Trees (A Christmas Circular Letter),” about a city man who comes to the speaker’s country farm offering to buy all the pine trees behind his farmhouse to sell in the city as Christmas trees. In his laconic Yankee voice, Frost’s speaker describes how he is doubtful from the first that he would cut down his valued trees, even though he had never vested them with particular Christmas meaning before:
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
However, as a farmer in business to make money, he goes along with the buyer long enough to find out if the right time to sell at a profit may have arrived. Turns out the value of the trees would amount to only 3 cents apiece (this was 1916, recall):
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those.
In an easy decision, he decides not to sell, so nothing has materially changed since the beginning of the event. However, through the whole exchange, the speaker gains something he didn’t have before, hence discovering meaning in the material that wasn’t there before:
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Writing to his friends at Christmas about the incident, he wishes he could share not just the trees, but their meaning:
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.
In these last lines, the speaker doesn’t just wish that his reader find meaning in the Christmas season, as he has. He also seems to acknowledge, wistfully, that real meaning can’t be shared by giving something material, like a Christmas tree; he can only attempt to pass it on by telling the story of his journey to meaning.
e. e. cummings: A Christmas Tree and Making Meaning
In 1920, e.e. cummings contemplates Christmas trees from the other side as Frost’s farmer. The speaker in this sweet little poem “little tree” is a city child contemplating the Christmas tree arrived fresh in his home after being cut down in the forest.
The child feels sympathy for the tree, torn from its natural home. He or she wants to comfort it and make it feel better by promising to decorate it with beautiful ornaments:
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
In the end, the child is the gainer as much as the tree could be. Having begun with a sad material object, a tree removed from its habitat, the child and sister make their own Christmas meaning from their interactions with it:
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
In giving the tree its beautiful decoration, the children have given birth to a holiday with meaning, and celebrate it by singing “Noel,” appropriately, a word traceable to the Latin word for “birth.”
Hardy and the Oxen
Returning to a more adult perspective, we move to Thomas Hardy’s famous poem The Oxen, published in 1915. This poem is based on a well-known legend from Hardy’s home in the English West Country. According to the Guardian, “The legend that cattle – descendants of the beasts that knelt in reverence at the stable in Bethlehem – would kneel each Christmas Eve at midnight was familiar to Hardy from childhood.”
The speaker of the poem remembers how his younger self never questioned the assertions of his elders, that magically, their cattle would kneel in their stalls precisely at midnight every Christmas Eve to acknowledge the birth of Christ, just as their cattle ancestors had back in Bethlehem.
The speaker calls this “so fair a fancy” that “few would weave [that is, believe]/ in these years!” Yet, if someone were to say to him, even now, “Come; see the oxen kneel / . . . I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.”
This speaker may not yet have found transcendent meaning within the humble materiality of a cattle barn, but, skeptic as he is, even he hasn’t quite stopped looking for it, hoping someday it will be there.
Kooser’s Christmas Mail
Much more recently, in 2012, poet Ted Kooser offered a more optimistic view of how Christmas meaning and magic emerges from simple material objects and daily routines. This sweet little poem “Christmas Mail” describes a mail carrier delivering Christmas cards:
At stop after stop,
she opens the little tin door
and places deep in the shadows
the shepherds and wise men,
the donkeys lank and weary,
the cow who chews and muses.
Though she is just doing a routine job delivering little squares of cardboard, the images pointing so simply to the Christmas story bring a hint of transcendence to the dailiness of her chore. Her dashboard features nothing more dramatic than a Styrofoam cup of coffee, yet the cup itself is “white as a star,” and leads her forward into the holiday season. When she tastes the coffee, “there is a hint of hazelnut, / and then a touch of myrrh.” Myrrh, of course, is one of the gifts brought by a king to the baby Jesus.
Kooser’s poetic picture suggests that even small material things can become gifts that lead to seasonal transcendence.
Rosetti’s Bleak Midwinter and the Wonder of the Birth
I’ll end this tour of Yuletide poems with one of my favorite Christmas poems of all time: Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” published as “A Christmas Carol” in 1872. You can listen to the Choir of King’s College sing the Gustav Holst version of the song here.
All the poems we have discussed so far depict people reaching from the material world to grasp at meaning and transcendence. Rosetti’s poem meditates on the opposite situation: how the Numinous seeks out the Material. Rosetti highlights what the Christmas story is all about: the Son of God himself seeks out and is born into the material world, into the most gritty and humble of circumstances.
Rosetti’s version of the birth of Christ does not depict the literal setting as described in the Bible, of desert, cows, and camels. Instead she imagines Christ being born into a bleak English winter:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
I always find those apparently simple similes, earth hard as iron and water like a stone, so evocative and powerful. This version of winter becomes Rosetti’s metaphor for the harsh contrast between the grace, goodness, and delicacy of the baby God and the world he has determined to live within, the one his creatures occupy.
Rosetti wonders at how simple are the requests of this Baby God. He deserves, and will receive, the worship of people and angels, yet when he is born into the world, he is satisfied with very little:
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
The speaker frets that she has nothing to give this God who gifts the material world with his literal presence, concluding:
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Rosetti’s speaker finds much reassurance in this Nativity scene. For such a God, who would forgo his natural spiritual realm to walk humbly among people struggling through the material world, one’s heart, however small it seems, is a wholly acceptable gift.
Reaching for Meaning at Christmas
At Christmastime, we often reach harder for significance and meaning than at other times of the year. Sometimes we find it, perhaps even to our surprise. But if we fail, Rosetti’s poem for me is a simple yet powerful reminder of the true message of the Christmas story: when we can’t reach the transcendent, the Spirit stands ready to come to us.
By the way, I didn’t find the Baby Jesus that was lost from my manger scene. My granddaughter, who was three last Christmas, was very fascinated by the Baby, and kept picking it up from the manger to cradle and carry it around. I suspect she may have carried it off to another as yet undiscovered Christmas-y locale.
Not to worry. If so, the little plastic babe has served a noble purpose. And luckily, I found another Baby Jesus to buy online, exactly 1 ¾ inches long, that fits perfectly into the manger in my creche. (Thanks Amazon.) Now I, my grandchildren, and all other Christmas guests can contemplate the birth of Jesus in complete tableau. Christmas is saved.
But of course, it’s not the material object in itself that matters. It’s the meaning we find in it. Wishing that you find and experience much meaning this Winter season.
Other Posts About Christmas Poems
Decorated Christmas Trees and Manger Scenes: MJ Booklover
Winter Road Scene: Pexels.com
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.