Saturday, December 11, 2010
This is one of the earliest Christmas poems I've been able to find, by Robert Southwell (1561-1595); somewhat reflective of the intense religious controversies of his times, well before the appearance of that icon we've come to know as Santa Claus!
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.
A Visit from St. Nicholas is unquestionably the most famous Christmas poem of all time:
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' 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 danc'd in their heads...
First published anonymously in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823, it was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. A Visit from St. Nicholas is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and the tradition that he brings toys to children. Prior to the poem, American ideas about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably. The poem has influenced ideas about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus beyond the United States to the rest of the English-speaking world and beyond. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clement_Clarke_Moore)
Clement Clark Moore eventually acknowledged he was the author and included it in an 1844 anthology of his works. But some scholars have questioned his account, thinking perhaps Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a New Yorker with Dutch and Scottish roots, is the chief candidate for authorship, if Moore did not write it. Livingston was distantly related to Moore's wife. In support of this theory is Moore's other Christmas poem, a slightly different take on the whole affair:
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.
Paradoxes make us think don't they? Today A Visit from St. Nicholas is the form into which most modern satirical Christmas verses are poured, often in the spirit of Old SantaClaus. Here are some of the best examples I have found.
A Politically Correct Christmas Poem
Twas the night before Christmas and Santa's a wreck...
How to live in a world that's politically correct?
His workers no longer would answer to "Elves",
"Vertically Challenged" they were calling themselves.
And labor conditions at the North Pole,
were alleged by the union, to stifle the soul.
Four reindeer had vanished without much propriety,
released to the wilds, by the Humane Society.
And equal employment had made it quite clear,
that Santa had better not use just reindeer.
So Dancer and Donner, Comet and Cupid,
were replaced with 4 pigs, and you know that looked stupid!
The runners had been removed from his beautiful sleigh,
because the ruts were deemed dangerous by the EPA,
And millions of people were calling the Cops,
when they heard sled noises upon their roof tops.
Second-hand smoke from his pipe, had his workers quite frightened,
and his fur trimmed red suit was called "unenlightened".
To show you the strangeness of today's ebbs and flows,
Rudolf was suing over unauthorized use of his nose.
He went to Geraldo, in front of the Nation,
demanding millions in over-due workers compensation.
So...half of the reindeer were gone, and his wife
who suddenly said she'd had enough of this life,
joined a self help group, packed and left in a whiz,
demanding from now on that her title was Ms.
And as for gifts...why, he'd never had the notion
that making a choice could cause such commotion.
Nothing of leather, nothing of fur...
Which meant nothing for him or nothing for her.
Nothing to aim, Nothing to shoot,
Nothing that clamored or made lots of noise.
Nothing for just girls and nothing for just boys.
Nothing that claimed to be gender specific,
Nothing that's warlike or non-pacifistic.
No candy or sweets...they were bad for the tooth.
Nothing that seemed to embellish upon the truth.
And fairy tales...while not yet forbidden,
were like Ken and Barbie, better off hidden,
for they raised the hackles of those psychological,
who claimed the only good gift was one ecological.
No baseball, no football...someone might get hurt,
besides - playing sports exposed kids to dirt.
Dolls were said to be sexist and should be passe.
and Nintendo would rot your entire brain away.
So Santa just stood there, disheveled and perplexed,
he just couldn't figure out what to do next?
He tried to be merry he tried to be gay,
but you must have to admit he was having a very bad day.
His sack was quite empty, it was flat on the ground,
nothing fully acceptable was anywhere to be found.
Something special was needed, a gift that he might,
give to us all, without angering the left or the right.
A gift that would satisfy - with no indecision,
each group of people in every religion.
Every race, every hue,
everyone, everywhere...even you!
So here is that gift, it's price beyond worth...
"MAY YOU AND YOUR LOVED ONES, ENJOY PEACE ON EARTH"
Drunk Night Before Christmas
Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house,
There were bottles and butts left around by some louse.
And the best fifth I'd hidden by the chimney with care
Had been snatched by some bum who had found it right there.
My pals: guys and gals had been poured into their beds
To wake in the morning with hungover heads.
My mouth, full of cotton, dropped down with a snap
Because I was dying for one wee nightcap.
When through the south window there came such a yell,
I sprang to my feet to see what the hell...
And what to my bloodshot eyes should I see
But eight drunken reindeer caught in a tree.
Way in 'mongst the branches was a man in a sleigh.
I saw it was Santa, quite oiled and tres gay.
Staggering nearer those eight reindeer came
As he burped and hiccupped and called them by name:
"On Whiskey, on Vodka, we ain't got all night!
You too, Gin and Brandy, now all do it right.
Clammer up to the roof; get the hell off this wall!
Get going you rummies, we've still a long haul!"
So up on the roof went the reindeer and sleigh,
But a tree branch hit Santa before he could sway
And then to my ears, like the roll of a barrel,
Came a hell of a noise that was no Christmas carol.
So I pulled in my head and cocked a sharp ear.
Down the chimney he plunged, landing smack on his rear.
He was dressed all in red, with white fur for a trim.
And the way Santa swayed, he was tanked to the brim.
The sack on his back held nothing but booze,
And the breath that he blew nearly put me to snooze.
He was both plump and chubby and tried to stand right.
But he didn't fool me; he was high as a kite.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work
And missed half the stockings, the plastered old jerk.
And laying his thumb on the end of his nose,
He fluttered his fingers as he quoted prose.
He sprang for his sleigh at so hasty a pace
He tripped on a shingle and slid on his face.
But I heard him burp back as he passed out of sight:
"Merry Christmas, you lushes, now really get tight."
The Night Before Christmas in Brooklyn
Twas the night before Christmas,
Da whole house was mella,
Not a creature was strirrin',
Cuz I had a gun unda da pilla.
When up on da roof
I heard somethin' pound,
I sprung to da window,
To scream, "YO! Keep it down!"
When what to my
Wanderin' eyes should appear,
But da Don of all elfs,
And eight friggin' reindeer!
Wit' slicked back black hair,
And a silk red suit,
Don Christopher wuz here,
And he brought da loot!
Wit' a slap to dare snouts
And a yank on dare manes,
He cursed and he shouted
And he called dem by name
"Yo Tony, Yo Frankie,
Yo Vinny, Yo Vito,
Ay Joey, Ay Paulie,
Ay Pepe, Ay Guido!"
As I drew out my gun
And hid by da bed,
He flew troo da winda
And slapped me 'side da head.
"What da hell you doin'
Pullin' a gun on da Don?
Now all you're gettin' is coal,
You friggin' moron!"
Den pointin' a fat finga
Right unda my nose,
He twisted his pinky ring,
And up da chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh,
Away dey all flew,
Before he troo dem a beatin'.
Den I heard him yell out,
What I did least expect,
"Merry Friggin' Christmas to all,
And yous better show some respect!
Don't believe in Santa Claus? Ogden Nash has got an warning for you!
The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus
In Baltimore there lived a boy,
He wasn't anybody's joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies' reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked No Admittance.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn't any Santa Claus.
Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying "Boo!" at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
"There isn't any Santa Claus!"
Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.
Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
"Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn't any Santa Claus!"
Slunk like a weasel or a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
"There isn't any, no there's not!"
The children wept all Christmas Eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared to hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.
What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of "Don't," and "Pretty please."
He howled, "I don't know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!"
"Jabez," replied the angry saint,
"It isn't I, it's you that ain't.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn't any Jabez Dawes!"
Said Jabez with impudent vim,
"Oh, yes there is; and I am him!
Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't"---
And suddenly he found he wasn't!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.
The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.
All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donder and Blitzen licked off his paint.
We should all want to be home for the comfort, joy and communal celebrations of Christmas but Necessity sometimes makes it impossible. This poem by Robert Louis Stevenson captures the pathos of such situations to near perfection.
Christmas at Sea
The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.
They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.
All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.
We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.
The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.
The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.
O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.
And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.
They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . "It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.
She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.
And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.
White Christmas by Robert William Service has the homecoming angle on 'the sad story' of Christmas:
My folks think I'm a serving maid
Each time I visit home;
They do not dream I ply a trade
As old as Greece or Rome;
For if they found I'd fouled their name
And was not white as snow,
I'm sure that they would die of shame . . .
Please, God, they'll never know.
I clean the paint from off my face,
In sober black I dress;
Of coquetry I leave no trace
To give them vague distress;
And though it causes me a pang
To play such sorry tricks,
About my neck I meekly hang
A silver crufix.
And so with humble step I go
Just like a child again,
To greet their Christmas candle-glow,
A soul without a stain;
So well I play my contrite part
I make myself believe
There's not a stain within my heart
On Holy Christmas Eve.
With double natures we are vext,
And what we feel, we are;
A saint one day, a sinner next,
A red light or a star;
A prostitute or proselyte,
And in each part sincere:
So I become a vestal white
One week in every year.
For this I say without demur
From out life's lurid lore,
Each righteous women has in her
A tincture of the whore;
While every harpy of the night,
As I have learned too well;
Holds in her heart a heaven-light
To ransom her from hell.
So I'll go home and sweep and dust;
I'll make the kitchen fire,
And be a model of daughters just
The best they could desire;
I'll fondle them and cook their food,
And Mother dear will say:
"Thank God! my darling is as good
As when she went away."
But after New Year's Day I'll fill
My bag and though they grieve,
I'll bid them both good-bye until
Another Christmas Eve;
And then . . . a knock upon the door:
I'll find them waiting there,
And angel-like I'll come once more
In answer to their prayer.
Then Lo! one night when candle-light
Gleams mystic on the snow,
And music swells of Christmas bells,
I'll come, no more to go:
The old folks need my love and care,
Their gold shall gild my dross,
And evermore my breast shall bear
My little silver cross.
I conclude with two of my favorite ('dark') Christmas poems.
A Christmas Ghost Story by Thomas Hardy
South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies--your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.
Behold, as Goblins Dark of Mien by Robert Louis Stevenson
Behold, as goblins dark of mien
And portly tyrants dyed with crime
Change, in the transformation scene,
At Christmas, in the pantomime,
Instanter, at the prompter's cough,
The fairy bonnets them, and they
Throw their abhorred carbuncles off
And blossom like the flowers in May.
- So mankind, to angelic eyes,
So, through the scenes of life below,
In life's ironical disguise,
A travesty of man, ye go:
But fear not: ere the curtain fall,
Death in the transformation scene
Steps forward from her pedestal,
Apparent, as the fairy Queen;
And coming, frees you in a trice
From all your lendings - lust of fame,
Ungainly virtue, ugly vice,
Terror and tyranny and shame.
So each, at last himself, for good
In that dear country lays him down,
At last beloved and understood
And pure in feature and renown.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!