Many a Christmas carol has been spoiled by slick, oversweetened arrangement, piped into a mall to stimulate more panic buying. Christmas poems, read in a quiet moment to ourselves, are harder (though not impossible of course) to commodify. They are something of an antidote. As a member of Muzak's marketing department remarked, quoted in a New Yorker article a year or two back, "Our biggest competitor is silence."

Last night we attended the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons (it sounds ancient, but is a relatively recent invention) at the Anglican church of St. Paul's in downtown Athens. Our 3-year old son even managed to sit/squirm through about eight of them. I've been thinking it would be neat to have a service like that with poems--or maybe incorporate poems into the songs and readings. I'm curious what poems our bloggers or readers would include in such a poetry service. I think it would work best as a mix of obvious old favorites and lesser known gems, from various periods.
December 25, with its pagan roots and non-existent Biblical grounds, was imposed by the people on the Church rather than the other way around. (Indeed, despite the current keep-Christmas-special campaigns, there was a time when many protestants in the US refused to celebrate it at all as pagan-Catholic). If Easter is all about mystery, miracles, the supernatural, the divine (all rather hard to wrap the mind around), the Christmas story is on a more human and earthly plane: taxation, the crush of travellers, a young mother in labor, innkeepers, stables, shepherds. Maybe that is why it appeals so much to poets.
This is one of my favorite Christmas poems, by George Mackay Brown. (I first encountered it in The Oxford Book of COntemporary Verse 1945-1980, edited by DJ Enright.) I love it's vernacular verve ("bleeze"!), and how it gets the whole story in through the eyes of the gate-keeper, who has seen it all:
The Keeper of the MIdnight Gate
What are all the hillman wanting
Around the alehouse door,
The old one carrying a new lamb?
Drink, likely, and women.
Too cold for them up on the hill
With stars snapping their silver fingers.
They've left a boy
To keep the door of the fold, I hope.
What are you? Come closer, maskers.
Melchior. Caspar. Balthazzar.
No names like that hereabout.
O thank you sir!
Pass on, Daffodil-face, Ebony-face, Nut-face.
Go in peace
With your foreign stinks and the one clang in your sack.
No bite or blanket in that inn, Lady
Unless you're loaded.
Pass on, man. There might be a corner. I know she's done in.
Her furnace mouth
Keeps the ox warm.
The publican's fire is the bleeze of gold in his till.
Yes, colonel, the following village women
As far as I know
Have been brought to bed this past week
Or are ripe to the bursting
Or may be in their sweet pains tonight--
Rachel, Tamar, Deborah,
Ruth, Esther,
Sara, Jemima, Judith.
Yes, sir--
Hooves and swords.
An angel, are you?
Mister, let me tell you
The magistrates
Want no comic-singers in the town this winter.
What are those shadows
There, at the fire's edge, with guitars?
I did not think
Angels stank and had holes in their sleeves.
All right, go through, vagrants.
Say, if you're challenged
You came in by another road.
Worms are feasting
Round the fire at the heart of the earth tonight,
You can have this crumb from my sandwich.
This cold night
You'd be better in the silver cage of the merchant.

Originally Published: December 24th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. December 25, 2007
     Mary Meriam

    Thanks for posting The Keeper of the Midnight Gate- I love it! The last stanza is great. I think I've found a soul brother in Walter de la Mare.
    Walter de la Mare (1913)
    Sitting under the mistletoe
    (Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
    One last candle burning low,
    All the sleepy dancers gone,
    Just one candle burning on,
    Shadows lurking everywhere:
    Some one came, and kissed me there.
    Tired I was; my head would go
    Nodding under the mistletoe
    (Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
    No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
    Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
    Stooped in the still and shadowy air
    Lips unseen–and kissed me there.

  2. December 28, 2007

    What can I say about Xmas; Winter leaves me cold.
    First time I saw snow
    fall I had a cold
    but I sat in winter wools
    upon a rocky pinnacle
    atop a soggy hill
    From there I saw a towering cloud
    drop upon a far brown mound
    white powder
    that floated
    like feather
    light lacing the hills
    while I sat with friends
    who knew snow so shivered
    SPMackin, Winter 1996

  3. December 28, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    Robert Southwell
    As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
    Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
    And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
    A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
    Who, though scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed,
    As though his floods should quench his flames, which with his tears were fed.
    "Alas," quoth he, "but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
    Yet none approach to warm their hearts, or feel my fire but I!
    My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
    Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
    The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
    The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defiled souls,
    For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
    So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood."
    With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
    And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

  4. December 31, 2007

    ah, silence. I am in Cyprus... I asked for a nail file and a man in uniform handed me 50. In the mix down each hall of this hotel there are lounge singers warming up for tonight's big entry into 2008.