By Stephen McInerney
December 21, 2019
Christmas is strange. Religiously, it unites the human and the divine in a little child. “God’s infinity/dwindled to infancy,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said. “Christ brings together things thought opposite and incompatible,” he said elsewhere, and so does the season that commemorates his birth.
For instance, if I flip randomly through my Christmas Eve memories, one channel is graced by the Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, another by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. A ruffed chorister rises to the pure heights of Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter, but is suddenly eclipsed – when my teenage self steals the remote from my boyhood self – by a bathing beauty stripping by the pool to the sounds of Bing Crosby’s Mele Kalikimaka, ogled by Chevy Chase.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. Or is it the other way around? My teenage self would not be sure.And next day, round the dining room table, a long lost uncle wakes from his pre-prandial slumber to find himself joined in a do-or-die Christmas cracker tug-of-war with our gin-fuelled neighbour.
It’s a crazy time. Especially in Australia, where as C. J. Dennis observed: “In climates such as this the thing’s all wrong!” While Dennis suggests that “a bit of cold corned beef an’ bread/ Would do us very well instead” of roast turkey and plum pudding, such European culinary traditions die harder in the “parched and grey” land than the animals Europeans brought here to populate it.
The strangeness of winter food in summer is only one of many quirks. What of new swimwear stuffed in oversized woollen Santa stockings? Of beach balls landing in warm punch? Of fires raging across the country as Frosty the Snowman plays in department store elevators? All reflect the mysterious nature of the season, or at least the mysterious nature of Australians.
If there’s one art form that best conveys the contradictions of Christmas, however, it is poetry. While many people are familiar with the great stories of Christmas, including Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, fewer perhaps know the great Christmas poems, old and new. In some ways this is odd, especially when we are all so time poor, for as Voltaire said, “poetry says more in fewer words than prose”. It’s thus an efficient as well as pleasurable way of reflecting on what Christmas has meant through the centuries.
Dennis’ A Bush Christmas, mentioned above, is as good a place as any to start. Dylan Thomas’ verse radio play, A Childhood Christmas in Wales, is another. You’ll never forget the scene in the latter work of young boys fighting “a bombilating gong” with snowballs. Further back, and more luminously, there is of course Milton’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.
But I prefer the more modern poets’ musings on Christmas. Russian poet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky wrote a whole suite of Christmas poems. He was not the first agnostic to feel the strange attraction of a season dedicated to the birth of a god-man in whom he couldn’t quite believe or disbelieve. Thomas Hardy many decades earlier had already suggested that while few “in these years” can believe in the religious claims of Christmas, if he were asked to kneel before the nativity scene that he “used to know”, he would go to the gloomy church “hoping it might be so”.
This seems to me to capture perfectly – and sensitively – the attitude of many people today, who trudge off to church this one time of the year, hoping there might be some truth in the story of Christmas after all.
Between Brodksy and Hardy, there is W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being, which reflects not only the Christian mystery but the emotional drag of the season, and how each year we overestimate our powers to love our relatives. Auden’s mood takes its cue from Eliot’s melancholy Journey of the Magi, which wonders whether the nativity is really about birth or death. Both poets – the buttoned-up American in London, Eliot, and the gay Englishman in New York, Auden – were Christians, and both in their own way were sceptics, too, at least about humanity, if not about God.
But Christmas poetry is not all gloomy. To pick up your spirits, pick up the Christmas poems of Wendy Cope. Affirming the biblical injunctions, “on earth peace, good will towards men”, she adds one to the list: “And make them do the washing up!”
Dr Stephen McInerney is the academic director and deputy chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
Article published in the Sydney Morning Herald 21 December 2019. To see article click here