I think that’s why I recently found myself collecting together my favourite poems about Christmas and putting them into an anthology. I think--because I’m never sure why I write what I write until I have been separated from it for many months.
I’m not a Christian, though I was raised an Irish Catholic and attended a convent boarding school for years. For at least an equal number of years, I identified myself in opposition to what Christianity had come to represent in my mind: the patriarchal, hierarchical power that allowed physical and sexual abuse to flourish in its ranks. Yet I recently, without quite knowing why, found myself putting together this pamphlet of poems to celebrate Christmas, the story of the birth that we are told started it all.
Some of the poems reassert that story, some challenge it, some see it as purely symbolic—but all are engaged with the deeper questions that underwrite it.
These questions fired pre-christian versions of the mid-winter tale, which predated the story of Jesus appropriated, and they still interrogate our secular, post-christian life. Questions like: What is God? What does it mean for me if I believe in that entity? If I don’t? What is this light we so long for in our dark moments, that these poets seek and express here, that the Christmas story symbolises?
In the heart of darkness, how can we find it?
In Hamlet, Shakespeare described Christmas as a time when night is “wholesome… so hallowed and so gracious” that “...no spirit dare stir abroad...no planets strike,/no fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm.” The fears and frights of the dark cannot find a foothold in this night so silent and so holy, where all is calm, and bright, sleeping in heavenly peace.
Jesus was born, the story tells us, in a lowly stable, on such a night. Son of a single-mother, a virgin-mother, he and she together symbolise the opposite of the worldly, material power of the father. The female and child, humble and holy, meek and mild are vulnerable, yes, but protected by the other-worldly and invisible power, the creative spirit that births all.
Read thus, Christmas becomes a poetic symbol for the metaphysical time that collapses clock time, the metaphysical place that defies earth-bound materialism. A symbol of creative possibility, of what can happen, any moment of our lives, when we acknowledge that force within.
This story of rebirth, light in the darkest hour, the promise of spring in mid-winter, is much older than the Christian story. Whatever God a human society has worshipped, a version of this tale surrounds its earthy manifestation.
For me, now, the nativity tale is a metaphor for the condition that Buddhists call enlightenment, that Christians call union, that sufis call fana: the self-forgetting absorption into the nothingness that interpenetrates everything, the place we endlessly seek, where all is calm, all is bright, the hallowed creative space that underlies all phenomena.
For me, the miracle symbolised by Christmas happens every time the five vowel sounds and twenty-one consonants of the English language come together in a new way to tell us something about the truth of human life on earth, and all that lies within and without it.
Yes, Christmas can also be a crass, materialist, over-sentimentalised holiday, that rides roughshod over other belief systems, but without the earthbound existence where we are frail and ill and broken and bad, we cannot know that place beyond place, the time-out-of-time where I hope you'll spend most of your holiday season.
They interpenetrate, they inter-are.
Long Light. Every light creates a shadow, the stars
can’t shine without the night. Seek to muffle
up your sorrow: feel life fade inside,
and out. Loose it. Let it sear you hollow,
slice you open, clear your throat. Long
light lives through grace of shadow. The stars
are pleased to shine through night.