The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
Being in the mood to write about traditions lately, I was going to write something about Christmas traditions – in other words (as there’s no consensus) what I/you/he/she grew up with.
But TS Eliot – intense, intellectual, difficult, dry, serious, reactionary, opinionated and low on humour – says here everything which seems to me important. In this simple little poem, written in 1954 at the age of 66, he reaches back across the years in which he sought, in revolutionary language and intense personal depth, to find truth and meaning in human thought and experience. Having reached back, his quest ends in simple, childlike wonder.
If it ever puzzles you why Christmas carries a special magic for huge numbers of people, why it is such a special time, the poem says it all. You don’t have to be religious like Eliot, and I’m certainly not these days, to identify the awe and wonder and feel it acutely. I’m not a literary critic, but even if I were I can’t see any reason to comment further on the poem. I certainly can’t add to it.
Writing today, with the tree up and ready to be decorated, listening to Trinity College Choir sing O little one sweet by my beloved JS Bach, which we sang at primary school, planning a trip to the butcher to order some specials for the coming feast, getting ready to visit the National Gallery to see their new display of Maino’s Adoration of the Magi, looking at the lovely home made card now bearing the names of three grandchildren, and musing on Eliot’s penetratingly simple poetry, the tears prick in my eyes. It’s a special time, and I defy anyone to prove me wrong.
And if you think all this – and the poem for that matter – is a bit on the mawkish side, stop and examine yourself. You do buy into it, don’t you? And if you pretend you don’t:
- I don’t believe you.
- You are denying yourself the pleasure and the privilege of being a child.
- You are a miserable old sod.
Let yourself go!