We’re getting close, dear readers, very close to the feast of the Nativity.
The poet John Betjeman saw plenty of that Christmas that isn’t Christmas, and the waiting that isn’t waiting, of the sort that has nothing to do with Jesus, or with the poor, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned, the sinner trying to repent, the dying man trying to make his peace with God, or with anyone, anyone at all, awaiting the coming of the beloved Son. And in our Poem of the Week, he casts a sardonic eye its way. Oh, it is the easiest thing in the world to do, to criticize a commercialized holiday, a feast stripped of all that will make it a feast indeed, rather than just a family party. Betjeman does and doesn’t do that. He imagines the English people, from the villagers to the city folk in London, people of all classes, getting ready to celebrate the day, mainly by doing two things. They decorate their houses, town halls, city trams, and churches with holly and yew and bunting and bright paper, and they buy presents for Mum and Dad and anybody else they like, or anybody else they have to buy presents for. It isn’t a white Christmas, either, or a snowy and sooty Christmas Eve, such as Dickens imagines in A Christmas Carol, so that the boyish Bob Cratchit can scoot down a “slide” — that’s what they called a long stretch of ice in the street — twenty times before going to the poulterer’s for the meager goose to feed his family the next day. No, it’s a rainy night, and by the oil-lamps in the houses you can catch come color in the stained glass windows of the churches, from “Crimson Lake to Hookers Green,” says Betjeman with a wonderful double play on words, for those both sound like places, as in all the way from Dover to Newcastle-on-Tyne, but they are the names of watercolors, a bleary sort of thing to associate with church windows.
But Betjeman does not scorn what the people are doing. It is both sweet and silly, and he surely knew that the word “silly,” in Chaucer’s time, meant “innocent,” even “blessed” (think of its near cousin, German selig, blessed). The “hideous tie” is “kindly meant,” and that doesn’t describe just the feelings of the giver, but his natural piety too: King Lear’s daughters are “unkind” because they turn their own father out of doors. But what is it all, compared to the coming of the Christ child? “But is it true?” Betjeman asks, and he was a believing Christian. All the world hinges upon the answer to that question. If it is true, if God himself became man, and was born as a little child in an ox’s stall, if this most “tremendous tale” is true — and “tremendous” means, literally, that it gives you the shivers — then everything about Christmas, not just the ties and the “fripperies,” but even the caroling and the bells in the grand and soaring steeples, are tiny by comparison. Nor is it true only for a time long ago, because the same Lord who made the sea and sky dwells yet among us in the sacrament of the altar.
The bells of waiting Advent ring, The Tortoise stove is lit again And lamp-oil light across the night Has caught the streaks of winter rain In many a stained-glass window sheen From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green. The holly in the windy hedge And round the Manor House the yew Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge, The altar, font and arch and pew, So that the villagers can say 'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day. Provincial Public Houses blaze, Corporation tramcars clang, On lighted tenements I gaze, Where paper decorations hang, And bunting in the red Town Hall Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'. And London shops on Christmas Eve Are strung with silver bells and flowers As hurrying clerks the City leave To pigeon-haunted classic towers, And marbled clouds go scudding by The many-steepled London sky. And girls in slacks remember Dad, And oafish louts remember Mum, And sleepless children's hearts are glad. And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!' Even to shining ones who dwell Safe in the Dorchester Hotel. And is it true? And is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, Seen in a stained-glass window's hue, A Baby in an ox's stall ? The Maker of the stars and sea Become a Child on earth for me ? And is it true ? For if it is, No loving fingers tying strings Around those tissued fripperies, The sweet and silly Christmas things, Bath salts and inexpensive scent And hideous tie so kindly meant, No love that in a family dwells, No caroling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare - That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Thanks for the poem. Each winter evening, my dog and I walk past dozens of neighbors’ homes festooned with “holiday” lighting. With each crispy and air-bracing step and as we pass each display, I slowly transform from a moderately positive, end-of-day, happy neighbor to Ebenezer Scrooge himself. (Even) Max, my dog KNOWS there must be a Baby Jesus in there somewhere! Most impressive is the inflated and lighted Star Wars robot cradleing Baby Yoda, complimented by a Virtue Signaling sign, “Love is Love” and “Remember the Feminine” or some sort. But look!, here stands the puffy and bright, inflated Holy Family of bears with Baby Bear in the manger. I looked around for Goldilocks. Somehow this week, perhaps from an answered prayer, Ron the neighbor has replaced it with a real Holy Family. Remarkable somehow. Anyway, this poem shall sustain me in remaining “myself” these transformative evenings and perhaps even, with each step, stave off Scrooge and thank this poet for helping me rise above it all and praise God! It’s truly my solution, for now.
This poem should be included in every Christmas Card or non-descript "Holiday Greeting" It might awaken those who have become skeptics, agnostics, atheists, or heretics. Words do matter and truth shines forth when it is revealed again at Christmas.