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 for the Christmas season. These are, we reckon, 10 of the greatest poems for the Christmas holidays, spanning over 600 years of poetry in the English language (yes, the earliest poem on this list dates from around 1400!). 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’.
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.
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. Click on the poem’s title above to learn more about poem.
Anonymous, ‘I syng of a mayden’.
I syng of a mayden
That is makeles,
king of alle kinges
to here sone che chees.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.
He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the flowr.
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. This means it goes back quite a few centuries further than many of the more famous Christmas carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Away in a Manger’. It dates from the early fifteenth century, though the words may be even older. As the original spelling of the lyric quoted above makes clear, ‘I syng of a mayden’ is in Middle English rather than modern English. For our money, that’s partly what gives it its charm: the spelling reveals a vernacular English which thrived before the birth of the printed book, before the ‘Great Vowel Shift’, before the arrival of Chancery Standard. This is a fluid, vibrant, living English meant to be sung during the Christmas season.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.) Click on the link above to read the full poem (complete with a paraphrase of its meaning in modern English).
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.
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.
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. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is, of course, a nativity poem, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ, and featuring many of the images and icons we associate with the nativity story: the manger, the hay, the oxen and other animals, the Wise Men. But for Rossetti chief among all of these figures – after Christ himself – is the Virgin Mary, singled out in the poem’s fourth stanza: ‘Angels and archangels may have gathered there, / Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; / But His mother only, in her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.’ Rossetti reportedly earned £10 for the poem – not a bad sum in those days for a single poem. Click on the link above to read the poem in full, and learn more about it.
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. Listen to Betjeman reading his delightful Christmas poem here.
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. Listen to Eliot reading the poem here.
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. If you’re after a short, sweet, witty poem about the modern Christmas spirit for grown-ups, this may be just the poem for you.
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 Christ. Click on the link above to read the full poem.
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 out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
‘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. Click on the link above to read the full poem.
Clement Clarke Moore, ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’.
’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…
So begins perhaps the most famous poem about Christmas Eve in the English language. 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:
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!’
Click on the link above to read the full poem, or listen to it being read by the actor Vincent Price here.
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.