It’s Christmas season for many folk who practice Western classic traditions, a time that used to inspire many a sentimental poet’s pen. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to dip into this sampler of formerly famous poems about Christmas, written in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Currently popular seasonal songs often focus on jollity, mistletoe, and “ho, ho, ho,” but poets who have written about Christmas are far from naïve about the state of the world. Often they struggle to affirm their faith that the birth of Jesus indeed portends ultimate redemption for a troubled globe.
Though the style of these partially forgotten poems may seem vintage, some of the sentiments may surprise you by their modernity. Even if Christmas is not part of your tradition, you may still find these poems of interest for the sentiments that apply to all humans, not just Christians alone.
Christ’s Nativity: a Sweet Perspective
Lest we get too solemn too fast, though, let’s begin with a sweet and winsome version of the birth of Jesus by a popular poet from the American early 20th century, Sarah Teasdale.
In simple, clear, and lyrical language, Teasdale’s poem calls readers to contemplate the meaningful contrast between the different types of people, and beings, who are equally awed by the auspicious birth of Jesus. Kings “all dressed in ermine fine” marvel alongside the simpler poor shepherds whose “coats were brown and old.”
Teasdale ends the poem with another sweet contrast: although the angels sing all night to signify the birth’s importance, the celebrated baby himself is not yet impressed by all the fuss, and falls asleep long before they are done. In a few brief lines, Teasdale captures the paradoxes inherent in the Christian Nativity.
Longfellow Hears the Bells
Moving to a more serious poem, we come to Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells,” which many readers may already know as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The poem was composed in 1863 amidst the violence of the American Civil War. The poem’s speaker poignantly contrasts the sound of Christmas bells with the even louder sound of cannon fire from the battlefields that seem to drown the bells’ call for peace on earth.
Though the speaker almost despairs about the state of the world, he ends the poem by affirming his faith in the Christmas message, that ultimately God will set things right and that peace will come to earth:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
More Bells: Tennyson’s Wild Ones
Longfellow is not the only seasonal poet to express sadness about the state of the world and longing for its betterment. Like Longfellow, the sound of bells rung to celebrate the coming of the New Year reminded Tennyson not just of joy and hope, but of the sadness, injustice, and suffering that people had endured in the old year just passing.
“Ring Out, Wild Bells” is often presented as an intact poem about the Christmas and New Year season, but it is actually an excerpt from Tennyson’s much longer poem, In Memoriam, in which he grieves the death of a dear friend and deeply questions his faith in God. Read “Ring Out Wild Bells” here.
To Tennyson’s ears, the Christmas bells are clamorous and “wild,” and yet welcome, because they announce the dying of a year he wants to see gone:
“The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.”
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Tennyson’s lines go on to denounce a litany of woes that had plagued humans throughout the last year: grief, feuds between rich and poor, injustice, poor ways of treating others, want, care, sin, disease, and war. To me, one stanza seems particularly applicable to our current zeitgeist:
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
These lines might seem too sad for holiday time were it not for Tennyson’s longing and hope that a New Year can bring better things than the old. For one thing, Tennyson calls on people to develop “the love of truth and right” and to act with “larger heart” and “kindlier hand.” And similar to Longfellow, Tennyson pins hope on God. The “Christ that is to be” will ultimately bring redemption to the world, a hope worth celebrating:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”
It’s not surprising that a Methodist hymn writer like Charles Wesley would affirm his faith in the redeeming work of God through the birth of Jesus more resoundingly than the two secular poets we have just read. In his Christmas hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Wesley calls Jesus “Dear desire of every nation / Joy of every longing heart.”
But I am very interested to hear in this hymn the same melancholy note, the same grief expressed by Longfellow and Tennyson at how much sadness and struggle is in the world. In his meditation on Christ’s Nativity, Wesley ponders the wonder that God would “come to earth to taste our sadness” and to be our friend as well as a Lord:
Come to earth to taste our sadness
He whose glories knew no end
By his life he brings us gladness
Our Redeemer Shepherd Friend
Leaving riches without number
Born within a cattle stall
This the everlasting wonder
Christ was born Lord of all.
If you would like to hear this hymn sung, here is a nice modern rendition of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” by the Lexington Road worship band from Boyce College, Lexington, KY.
The Funny Side of Christmas: Laughing at Santa, and Its Consequences
We have explored the sweet and the solemn side of the Christmas season; now it’s time to look at the funny one. If you have never read Ogden Nash’s “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus,” go and enjoy it now!
This witty poem tells the story of a very unpleasant boy named Jabez (pronounced “Jay-bees”) Dawes who takes pleasure in ruining people’s Christmas by telling them there’s no Santa. For all of you who had their Santa dreams ruined by a similar ill-natured tattle-tale, you’ll be glad to know that Jabez gets a suitable comeuppance. It isn’t just the story, but the splendid Nash-ian rhymes that make me laugh every time. For a taste, here’s a few lines from the start of the poem, when the poet introduces Jabez:
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.
Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying ‘Boo’ at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
And this is just the barest taste! If you would rather hear the poem performed than read it yourself, here are a couple of fun options:
Whatever your seasonal tradition, I hope your celebrations bring you joy and the new year brings you peace.
Also, check back with us soon for yet another seasonal post, when our first Guest Writer will tell you about a famous Christmas poem by the famed John Milton!
Christmas Bells: Photo by Digital Buggu from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/bells-blur-brass-decoration-365069/.
Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow_by_Southworth_&_Hawes_c1850.jpg: Southworth & Hawes derivative work: Beao [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Alfred Tennyson. By nach einem Gemälde von P.Krämer herausgegeben von Friedrich Bruckmann Verlag München Berlin. (Carte de Visite – Foto 6,0 x 8,4 cm .) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Wesley. By User Magnus Manske on en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Santa with Pack. By Frances Brundage [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Vintage Holly Card. By Shirley Wynne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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.