Christmas is a time for contemplation. It’s a time for community. It’s a time for pausing in the rush of modern living to consider what it means to be human.
American essayist Hamilton Wright Maybe wrote that Christmas is “the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” And sometimes it does feel like a conspiracy: Christmas has a strange power, drawing us into its community of whirling joy whatever our individual joys, sufferings, and beliefs may be. The world stands transfixed by the mystery of love of which Christmas is an iconic image. And Christmas poetry can help us engage with this mystery by giving us opportunities for contemplation and for silence. We are not good at pausing, particularly when there is so much to be done. But poetry, if we allow it to, can teach us how to pay attention to the mysteries of life, to the conspiracies of love. By contemplating these things, we move towards peace with ourselves and with the world, that peace which is the central promise of Christmas: “Peace on Earth, good will to all!”
01. [christmas tree] by e. e. cummings
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
Cummings is always enchanting, and this sweet poem is no exception. It presents the unusual perspective of a child tenderly comforting the annual Christmas tree, taken from its “mother” and brought into its new home: “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.”
02. “The Christmas Letter” by John N. Morris
Wherever you are when you receive this letter
I write to say we are still ourselves
In the same place
And hope you are the same.
This little letter-poem voices the desire for constancy in home and those we associate with home. This desire is behind so much of the nostalgia attached to Christmas, which brings with it equal parts pain and joy: the old times will never come again with their unique joy and simplicity, but the memory of past joys is itself a distinct kind of pleasure. Time bears us apart from those we love, but even this separation is a bond: as long as we are moved to say, “It’s been forever!” we are present to each other in that very absence.
03. “Advent” by Mary Jo Salter
Wind whistling, as it does
in winter, and I think
nothing of it until
it snaps a shutter off
her bedroom window, spins
it over the roof and down
to crash on the deck in back,
like something out of Oz.
I love the way the wind whistles through the opening lines of this poem with its repeated “w”s, and the way the sounds get sharp and crisp in the next stanza as Salter moves to describe the “snap” and clatter of the falling shutter. The violence of winter is present in the physicality of these sounds, but the poem counters this with the intimate home scenes of gingerbread house making which merge with meditations on a nativity scene, time encountering eternity.
05. “Advent” by Rae Armantrout
In front of the craft shop,
a small nativity,
mother, baby, sheep
made of white
and blue balloons.
This poem is ekphrastic (built to describe a work of art), in this case describing an unusual nativity scene in a store window. Like Salter’s poem, the viewer contemplates the paradoxes incarnated in the Nativity story, the collision of “Sky // god // girl”, of the “nothing” which lies at the root of “everything.”
06. “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us
The staggered spacing of this poem instantiates the lilting “singing” which the opening lines describe and the developing thoughts which fill the bird’s mind. The bird is both an observer and powerfully in charge as the poem becomes a contemplation on winter as the work of a being who loves us, a benevolent sacrificial gift.
07. “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.
From the title’s intimate “those,” this poem welcomes us into Hayden’s childhood home on cold winter mornings. The poem tracks the growth of the child into the man, moving from the “blueblack mornings” of childhood when he was “indifferent” to his father’s sacrifices to the adult man who has come to learn and to perform himself “love’s austere and lonely offices.” There is a religious sensibility to this notion of love as a ritual which navigates personal relationships. Particularly reading this poem at Christmas, the relationship of father and son in winter’s cold is evocative of the nativity scene, of the sacrifices Joseph made for his new son Jesus in the Bible story. And the growth of the poet from child to adult over the course of the poem both speaks to our individual experience of growing into sacrifice and also suggests the end which the Christmas babe is heading towards, an office truly “austere and lonely,” the fullest manifestation of the sacrificial love that shows itself in actions as small as building a fire.
08. “Descending Theology: Christ Human” by Mary Karr
Such a short voyage for a god,
and you arrived in animal form so as not
to scorch us with your glory.
I love this meditation on the mystery of Christmas, of the idea that power is manifested in the weak, that love is manifested in the vulnerable, that life is manifested in the death of sacrifice. Karr’s poem combines a mythical tone with a vivid, sometimes harsh, realism as she contemplates the unfathomable ways that the Christmas babe speaks to the deepest sufferings of the human heart and offers it the strangest consolations: “love adamant as bone” is what she sees in Christmas, love that “relinquishes self and will and want.”
09. “Merry” by Shel Silverstein
This poem is short and sweet, and I’ll keep my comments the same. The poem is a process of re-discovery, an efficacious reminder that Christmas is not a day. Each line strips away the material things we associate with Christmas and leaves us to contemplate why it is that the world, each year, pauses with the winter to celebrate the goodness of the world.
10. “Winter Trees” by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
Williams’ poetry is so often the poetry of images, of scenes given to us without moral, simply as subjects for our contemplation. The scene he gives us here draws us into community with the winter world. The opening lines seem to be said as much of humans as of trees: after weeks of bustling among “all the complicated details,” on Christmas Day we finally settle down. The final lines reflect the joy we take in rest after laboring to turn our homes into havens. And in fact this poem shows us the hospitality of the winter world: it is not a place of death but of hibernation, beautiful in itself and in what it makes possible.
11. “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” by Major Henry Livingston, Jr.
’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
Few lines are so immediately evocative as these, and no list of Christmas poetry could be complete without this masterpiece. Whether you have children in your life or are firmly entrenched in adulthood, take the time to read this poem aloud by the tree or by the fire and relish the wave of nostalgia and childish joy that sweeps over you as you envision the “moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,” the clatter of hooves on the roof, and the voice of St. Nick echoing over the rooftops of the city, calling out the joy and sense of human unity that shapes this magical season: “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”