poem index

Poems about Christmas

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It may be difficult these days to separate the Christmas season from the image of the rosy-cheeked, white-bearded man with a taste for cookies and milk, but it was actually a poem that offered us the jolly, plump version of Santa Claus known today. On December 23, 1823, a poem called "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Sentinel, the local newspaper of Troy, New York. This piece offered a different take on Santa Claus, a figure who was, until that time, traditionally depicted as a thinner, less jolly, horse-riding disciplinarian, a combination of mythologies about the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the fourth-century bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra. But the poem in the newspaper painted a different picture: it gave Santa eight reindeer, and even named them; it described a Santa who could magically sneak in and out of homes via chimneys; and it created the venerated, cheerful, chubby icon that is everpresent in holiday cards, movies, television shows, and malls everywhere:

     He had a broad face and a little round belly
     That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
     He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
     And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
     A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
     Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

The poem, of course, is now known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," after its famous first line. Thirteen years after it was published, Clement Clark Moore took credit for its authorship, though his claim to the poem is now in question. Many believe the poem was actually penned by New York writer Henry Livingston.

That Santa Claus was ever linked to the Christmas holiday is itself remarkable, given that the original Feast of St. Nicholas was historically observed on December 6. The holiday on December 25 is a Christian celebration of the birth of the Christ child, and the images surrounding that event have appealed to poets for centuries. John Milton, for example, described the virgin birth this way in his poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity":

          It was the winter wild,
          While the heaven-born child
       All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
          Nature, in awe to him,
          Had doffed her gaudy trim,
       With her great Master so to sympathize:
    It was no season then for her
    To wanton with the Sun, her lusty Paramour.

Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was so struck by the Christmas season that he wrote a poem for Christmas every year. These poems, now collected in his book Nativity Poems, are concerned not only with the iconography of Christmas, but also its themes: eternity, love, celebration, winter, perfection, sin. W. H. Auden, in his poem "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," appears more interested in the modern significance of the nativity event:

                                            ...Once again
     As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and
        failed
     To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
     Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
     Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
     The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

Other poets find inspiration in reporting on the general atmosphere and imagery of the holiday season. In Mark Doty’s "Messiah (Christmas Portions)," a community comes together to sing the traditional song, and it is in the merging of literal, even awkward, voices that the poet attempts to capture a facet of the holiday:

        Aren't we enlarged
     by the scale of what we're able
     to desire? Everything,
        the choir insists,

        might flame;
     inside these wrappings
     burns another, brighter life,
        quickened, now,

        by song: hear how
     it cascades, in overlapping,
     lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
        Still time to change.

Poems about Christmas

"A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clark Moore
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

"A Christmas Carol" by Christina Rossetti
In the bleak mid-winter

"Skating in Harlem, Christmas Day" by Cynthia Zarin
Beyond the ice-bound stones and bucking trees

"Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I heard the bells on Christmas Day

"Noel: Christmas Eve 1913" by Robert Bridges
A frosty Christmas Eve

"A Christmas Carol" by George Wither
So now is come our joyful feast

"The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman" (1487) by Emily Dickinson
The Savior must have been

"The Mystic's Christmas" by John Greenleaf Whittier
"All hail!" the bells of Christmas rang,

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Poems about Winter

"In drear nighted December" by John Keats
In drear nighted December

"Winter-Time" by Robert Louis Stevenson
Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,

"Toward the Winter Solstice" by Timothy Steele
Although the roof is just a story high,

"Winter Twilight" by Anne Porter
On a clear winter's evening

"Winter Trees" by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details

"Horoscope" by Maureen N. McLane
Again the white blanket

"The Snow Storm" by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

"The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter

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Poems about Chanukah

"Notes on the Spring Holidays, III, [Hanukkah]" by Charles Reznikoff
In a world where each man must be of use

"The Feast of Lights" by Emma Lazarus
Kindle the taper like the steadfast star

"The Coming of Light" by Mark Strand
Even this late it happens:

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More on the Holidays

Robert Frost's Christmas Cards