10 of the best poems for Christmas, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Stuck for a bit of festive-themed poetry this Christmas? Let us help. Here are our 10 quick holiday recommendations. These are, we reckon, 10 of the greatest poems for the Christmas holidays. They’re all quite short and make for ideal festive reading, so we’ve provided links to each of the poems, too. Christmas Please!: 100 Poems on the Festive Season, an excellent anthology of classic Christmas poems, is well worth getting hold of if you’re in search of more poems for Christmas.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Oxen’. Written in 1915 during WWI, this poem shows a yearning for childhood beliefs which the adult speaker can no longer hold. In other words, it highlights the yearning to believe, even – or perhaps especially – when we know that we cannot bring ourselves to entertain such beliefs. (Hardy had lost his religious faith early in life.) The poem is, aptly enough, set on Christmas Eve: as the anniversary of the birth of Christ arrives, the poet sits waiting with other people by the fire, and they picture the oxen kneeling down in their ‘strawy pen’, paying homage to the birth of Christ: ‘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…’
Anonymous, ‘I syng of a mayden’. ‘I syng of a mayden / That is makeles, / king of alle kinges / to here sone che chees.’ If, like Philip Larkin, you prefer the Christmas of the illuminated manuscripts and books of hours to the Christmas of Dingly Dell, you might enjoy this short lyric. This medieval poem or carol dates from around 1400, so is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the birth of modern English poetry. Written in Middle English, the poem tells of the Annunciation and Virgin Birth. (We have more great medieval poems, which make for fabulous Christmas reading, in a separate post.)
Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. ‘In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, long ago…’ We couldn’t compile a list of great Christmas poems without including this! Although more famous as a Christmas carol, the poem stands by itself, too. It was published in the January 1872 edition of Scribner’s Monthly, having been commissioned by the editor of that magazine. Rossetti reportedly earned £10 for the poem – not a bad sum in those days for a single poem.
John Betjeman, ‘Christmas’. As Christopher Ricks reminds us, faith is not the mere opposite of doubt, for doubt is a key component of faith. And this is true of much religious faith. This poem forms an intriguing pair with Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’, but where Hardy longed to believe but could not, Betjeman – an Anglican – had belief in God but seemed to exist in a continual state of doubt. ‘Christmas’ beautifully reflects this doubt-within-faith.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Journey of the Magi’. Written by T. S. Eliot in 1927, supposedly in one Sunday morning (and, at least according to the poet himself, with the help of half a bottle of gin), this poem was the first piece Eliot wrote following his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. It takes the form of a dramatic monologue told by one of the Magi (or ‘Wise Men’) travelling to see the infant Christ. What is noteworthy, though, is that Eliot elides the Nativity scene and ends by sounding a negative note which ponders death, rather than birth or life, as the Zoroastrian Magus who speaks the poem’s words struggles to come to terms with the fact that his own belief system, around which he has built his entire life, has been cast into disorder by the arrival of the infant Jesus.
Wendy Cope, ‘A Christmas Poem’. This brief poem by one of the greatest living exponents of light verse addresses what Christmas can be like for people not fortunate enough to be basking in the warm glow of a romantic relationship – but Cope puts it better than that.
John Milton, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. This ode, written in December 1629 when Milton was still in his early twenties, is about – well, the title says it all, really. Written by the author of Paradise Lost – probably the greatest religious epic poem in the English language – this is a poem about Christmas Day itself, celebrating the arrival of Chris: ‘This is the month, and this the happy morn, / Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King, / Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born / Our great redemption from above did bring…’
Sylvia Plath, ‘Balloons’. Although Sylvia Plath is not known for cheery poems, and this one was written near the end of her life, ‘Balloons’ shows a slightly lighter side to Plath, even if it acknowledges that balloons are destined ultimately to burst, like a bubble of optimism being popped. It is also one of Plath’s best-known poems to feature her own children.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ring out, wild bells’. ‘Ring in the valiant man and free, / The larger heart, the kindlier hand; / Ring out the darkness of the land, / Ring in the Christ that is to be’: taken from the long elegy In Memoriam, published in 1850, this poem virtually concludes Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833. It shows the poet regaining his faith and overcoming his grief when hearing the bells ringing in Christmas Day. This poem also features in our pick of the best poems for New Year.
Clement Clarke Moore, ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’. This poem simply had to be on our pick of the greatest Christmas poems, given its role in helping to cement the Santa story into the common consciousness. Although the authorship of this poem has been disputed, what is certainly true is that its influence and popularity have both been considerable, since it was first anonymously published in 1823. As well as giving us the names for nearly all of Santa’s reindeer, it also popularised the idea of St Nick flying through the night skies on a sleigh. Altogether now: ‘‘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…’
Looking for more Christmas poems? We recommend Christmas Please!: 100 Poems on the Festive Season, an excellent anthology of 100 classic Christmas poems accompanied by beautiful watercolour illustrations. And you can continue your festive odyssey with our post about the origins of the best Christmas carols and our pick of the best short stories about Christmas.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ manuscript by Clement Clarke Moore, Wikimedia Commons.