poem index

The Meaning of Christmas

Holidays: Christmas
The Meaning of Christmas
A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Clark Moore
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house  
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;  
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,  
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;  
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;  
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,  
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,  
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,  
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,  
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.  
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow  
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,  
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,  
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,  
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.  
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,  
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!  
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!  
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!  
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"  
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;  
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,  
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.  
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof  
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,  
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.  
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,  
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;  
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.  
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!  
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!  
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow  
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,  
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;  
He had a broad face and a little round belly,  
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful 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;  
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,  
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,  
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;  
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,  
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,  
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

The Meaning of Christmas
Christmas Bells
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807 - 1882
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
    And wild and sweet 
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom 
    Had rolled along 
    The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day, 
    A voice, a chime, 
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
    And made forlorn 
    The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; 
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
    "For hate is strong, 
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
    The Wrong shall fail, 
    The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
The Meaning of Christmas
The Oxen
Thomas Hardy, 1840 - 1928

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
    "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
    By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
    They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
    To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
    In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
    "Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
    Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
    Hoping it might be so.

The Meaning of Christmas
Old Santeclaus
Clement Clark Moore
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.

Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.

Where e’er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.
The Meaning of Christmas
Christmas Trees
Robert Frost, 1874 - 1963
A Christmas circular letter
The city had withdrawn into itself  
And left at last the country to the country;  
When between whirls of snow not come to lie  
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove  
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,   
Yet did in country fashion in that there  
He sat and waited till he drew us out,  
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.  
He proved to be the city come again  
To look for something it had left behind   
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.  
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;  
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place  
Where houses all are churches and have spires.  
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas trees.    
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment  
To sell them off their feet to go in cars  
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,  
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.  
I'd hate to have them know it if I was.      
Yet more I'd hate to hold my trees, except  
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,  
Beyond the time of profitable growth—  
The trial by market everything must come to.  
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.      
Then whether from mistaken courtesy  
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether  
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,  
I said, "There aren't enough to be worth while."
"I could soon tell how many they would cut,     
You let me look them over."  
                                    "You could look.  
But don't expect I'm going to let you have them."  
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close  
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few     
Quite solitary and having equal boughs  
All round and round. The latter he nodded "Yes" to,  
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,  
With a buyer's moderation, "That would do."  
I thought so too, but wasn't there to say so.   
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,  
And came down on the north. 
                                    He said, "A thousand."  
"A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?"  
He felt some need of softening that to me:       
"A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars."  
Then I was certain I had never meant  
To let him have them. Never show surprise!  
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside  
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents    
(For that was all they figured out apiece)—   
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends  
I should be writing to within the hour  
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,  
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools     
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!  
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,  
As may be shown by a simple calculation.  
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.       
I can't help wishing I could send you one,  
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.
The Meaning of Christmas
The Mahogany Tree
William Makepeace Thackeray

Christmas is here;
Winds whistle shrill,
Icy and chill,
Little care we;
Little we fear
Weather without,
Shelter'd about
The Mahogany Tree.

Once on the boughs
Birds of rare plume
Sang, in its bloom;
Night birds are we;
Here we carouse,
Singing, like them,
Perch'd round the stem
Of the jolly old tree.

Here let us sport,
Boys, as we sit—
Laughter and wit
Flashing so free.
Life is but short—
When we are gone,
Let them sing on,
Round the old tree.

Evenings we knew,
Happy as this;
Faces we miss,
Pleasant to see.
Kind hearts and true,
Gentle and just,
Peace to your dust!
We sing round the tree.

Care, like a dun,
Lurks at the gate:
Let the dog wait;
Happy we 'll be!
Drink every one;
Pile up the coals,
Fill the red bowls,
Round the old tree.

Drain we the cup.—
Friend, art afraid?
Spirits are laid
In the Red Sea.
Mantle it up;
Empty it yet;
Let us forget,
Round the old tree.

Sorrows, begone!
Life and its ills,
Duns and their bills,
Bid we to flee.
Come with the dawn,
Blue-devil sprite,
Leave us to-night,
Round the old tree.

The Meaning of Christmas
Toward the Winter Solstice
Timothy Steele, 1948
Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;			
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.

And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.
The Meaning of Christmas
The Mystic's Christmas
John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807 - 1892
"All hail!" the bells of Christmas rang,
"All hail!" the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God's sweet peace upon his face.

"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

"Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God's creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray monk answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.

"Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

"The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe'er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

"They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

"But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God's exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

"I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!"
The Meaning of Christmas
On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
John Milton, 1608 - 1674

This is the month, and this the happy morn,  
Wherein the Son of Heaven’s eternal King,  
Of wedded maid and Virgin Mother born,  
Our great redemption from above did bring;  
For so the holy sages once did sing,
  That he our deadly forfeit should release,  
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.  

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,  
And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,  
Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,  
He laid aside, and, here with us to be,  
  Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,  
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.  

Say, Heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?  
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,  
To welcome him to this his new abode,  
Now while the heaven, by the Sun’s team untrod,  
  Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?  

See how from far upon the Eastern road  
The star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet!  
Oh! run; prevent them with thy humble ode,  
And lay it lowly at his blessèd feet; 
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,  
  And join thy voice unto the Angel Quire,  
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.  

The Hymn


    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.  

    Only with speeches fair  
    She woos the gentle air  
  To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,  
    And on her naked shame, 
    Pollute with sinful blame,  
  The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;  
Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes  
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.  

    But he, her fears to cease, 
    Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:  
  She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding  
    Down through the turning sphere,  
    His ready Harbinger,  
  With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And, waving wide her myrtle wand,  
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.  

    No war, or battail’s sound,  
    Was heard the world around;  
  The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
    The hookèd chariot stood,  
    Unstained with hostile blood;  
  The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;  
And Kings sat still with awful eye,  
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

    But peaceful was the night  
    Wherein the Prince of Light  
  His reign of peace upon the earth began.  
    The winds, with wonder whist,  
    Smoothly the waters kissed, 
  Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,  
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,  
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.  

    The stars, with deep amaze,  
    Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
  Bending one way their precious influence,  
    And will not take their flight,  
    For all the morning light,  
  Or Lucifer that often warned them thence;  
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.  

    And, though the shady gloom  
    Had given day her room,  
  The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,  
    And hid his head of shame,  
    As his inferior flame  
  The new-enlightened world no more should need:  
He saw a greater Sun appear  
Than his bright Throne or burning axletree could bear.  

    The Shepherds on the lawn,
    Or ere the point of dawn,  
  Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;  
    Full little thought they than  
    That the mighty Pan  
  Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,  
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.  

    When such music sweet  
    Their hearts and ears did greet  
  As never was by mortal finger strook,
    Divinely-warbled voice  
    Answering the stringèd noise,  
  As all their souls in blissful rapture took:  
The air, such pleasure loth to lose,  
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.

    Nature, that heard such sound  
    Beneath the hollow round  
  Of Cynthia’s seat the airy Region thrilling,  
    Now was almost won  
    To think her part was done,  
  And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:  
She knew such harmony alone  
Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.  

    At last surrounds their sight  
    A globe of circular light,  
  That with long beams the shamefaced Night arrayed;  
    The helmèd Cherubim  
    And sworded Seraphim  
  Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,  
Harping in loud and solemn quire,     
With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s newborn Heir.  

    Such music (as ’tis said)  
    Before was never made,  
  But when of old the Sons of Morning sung,  
    While the Creator great  
    His constellations set,  
  And the well-balanced World on hinges hung,  
And cast the dark foundations deep,  
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.  

    Ring out, ye crystal spheres! 
    Once bless our human ears,  
  If ye have power to touch our senses so;  
    And let your silver chime  
    Move in melodious time;  
  And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony  
Make up full consort of the angelic symphony.  

    For, if such holy song  
    Enwrap our fancy long,  
  Time will run back and fetch the Age of Gold;
    And speckled Vanity  
    Will sicken soon and die,  
  And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;  
And Hell itself will pass away,  
And leave her dolorous mansions of the peering day.

    Yes, Truth and Justice then  
    Will down return to men,  
  The enamelled arras of the rainbow wearing;  
    And Mercy set between,  
    Throned in celestial sheen,    
  With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;  
And Heaven, as at some festival,  
Will open wide the gates of her high palace-hall.  

    But wisest Fate says No,  
    This must not yet be so; 
  The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy  
    That on the bitter cross  
    Must redeem our loss,  
  So both himself and us to glorify:  
Yet first, to those chained in sleep,  
The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep,  

    With such a horrid clang  
    As on Mount Sinai rang,  
  While the red fire and smouldering clouds outbrake:  
    The aged Earth, aghast     
    With terror of that blast,  
  Shall from the surface to the centre shake,  
When, at the world’s last sessiön,  
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.  

    And then at last our bliss
    Full and perfect is,  
  But now begins; for from this happy day  
    The Old Dragon under ground,  
    In straiter limits bound,  
  Not half so far casts his usurpèd sway,
And, wroth to see his Kingdom fail,  
Swindges the scaly horror of his folded tail.  

    The Oracles are dumb;  
    No voice or hideous hum  
  Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving. 
    Apollo from his shrine  
    Can no more divine,  
  Will hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.  
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,  
Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.

    The lonely mountains o’er,  
    And the resounding shore,  
  A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;  
    Edgèd with poplar pale,  
    From haunted spring, and dale     
  The parting Genius is with sighing sent;  
With flower-inwoven tresses torn  
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.  

    In consecrated earth,  
    And on the holy hearth,     
  The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;  
    In urns, and altars round,  
    A drear and dying sound  
  Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;  
And the chill marble seems to sweat,    
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.  

    Peor and Baälim  
    Forsake their temples dim,  
  With that twice-battered god of Palestine;  
    And moonèd Ashtaroth,      
    Heaven’s Queen and Mother both,  
  Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine:  
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;  
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.  

    And sullen Moloch, fled,    
    Hath left in shadows dread  
  His burning idol all of blackest hue;  
    In vain with cymbals’ ring  
    They call the grisly king,  
  In dismal dance about the furnace blue;   
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,  
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.  

    Nor is Osiris seen  
    In Memphian grove or green,  
  Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud;  
    Nor can he be at rest  
    Within his sacred chest;  
  Nought but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;  
In vain, with timbreled anthems dark,  
The sable-stolèd Sorcerers bear his worshiped ark.     

    He feels from Juda’s land  
    The dreaded Infant’s hand;  
  The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;  
    Nor all the gods beside  
    Longer dare abide,     
  Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:  
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,  
Can in his swaddling bands control the damnèd crew.  

    So, when the Sun in bed,  
    Curtained with cloudy red, 
  Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,  
    The flocking shadows pale  
    Troop to the infernal jail,  
  Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,  
And the yellow-skirted Fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.  

    But see! the Virgin blest  
    Hath laid her Babe to rest,  
  Time is our tedious song should here have ending:  
    Heaven’s youngest-teemèd star
    Hath fixed her polished car,  
  Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;  
And all about the courtly stable  
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.


The Meaning of Christmas
A Christmas Carol
Christina Rossetti, 1830 - 1894
In the bleak mid-winter
   Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
   Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
   Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter 
   Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
   Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
   When He comes to reign:
In the bleak midwinter
   A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
   Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
   Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
   And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
   Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
   Which adore.

Angels and archangels
   May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
   Thronged the air;
But only His mother
   In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
   With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
   Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
   I would bring a lamb,
If I were a Wise Man
   I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
   Give my heart.
The Meaning of Christmas
The Shivering Beggar
Robert Graves, 1895 - 1985
Near Clapham village, where fields began,  
Saint Edward met a beggar man.  
It was Christmas morning, the church bells tolled,  
The old man trembled for the fierce cold.  
Saint Edward cried, "It is monstrous sin
A beggar to lie in rags so thin!  
An old gray-beard and the frost so keen:  
I shall give him my fur-lined gaberdine."  
He stripped off his gaberdine of scarlet  
And wrapped it round the aged varlet,  
Who clutched at the folds with a muttered curse,  
Quaking and chattering seven times worse.  
Said Edward, "Sir, it would seem you freeze  
Most bitter at your extremities.  
Here are gloves and shoes and stockings also,
That warm upon your way you may go."  
The man took stocking and shoe and glove,  
Blaspheming Christ our Saviour’s love,  
Yet seemed to find but little relief,  
Shaking and shivering like a leaf.  
Said the saint again, "I have no great riches,  
Yet take this tunic, take these breeches,  
My shirt and my vest, take everything,  
And give due thanks to Jesus the King."  
The saint stood naked upon the snow  
Long miles from where he was lodged at Bowe,  
Praying, "O God! my faith, it grows faint!  
This would try the temper of any saint.  
"Make clean my heart, Almighty, I pray,  
And drive these sinful thoughts away.    
Make clean my heart if it be Thy will,  
This damned old rascal’s shivering still!"  
He stooped, he touched the beggar man’s shoulder;  
He asked him did the frost nip colder?  
"Frost!" said the beggar, "no, stupid lad!
’Tis the palsy makes me shiver so bad."