It has come as quite a shock to me that Christmas is almost here; close enough for this week to be a week for a Christmas poem.
I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get Christmas this year; I have been trying to forget all about it. It did not – for reasons regular readers of this column already know – seem like a thing that was going to happen; it seemed that once again I was going to spend it in somebody else’s hospital room, hoping and waiting and occasionally weeping.
And yet – here I am, and here it is, and I am thumbing through old anthologies of Christmas poems and ancient December back-issues of poetry magazines, trying to find something that feels the way I feel. Christmas poems that aren’t either by men or about God are harder to come by than you’d think, you see.
I have nothing against men or gods, but they aren’t my Christmas: I’ve never been able to get truly comfortable with John Betjeman’s smugly faithful classic No love that in a family dwells [...] Can with this simple Truth compare, no matter how satisfyingly bouncy the rhythm.
For me, that love is the whole point. It’s the most true thing there is, and that’s why I love this week’s poem so much. It’s called Christmas, by Sharyn November, and you can read it here.
It’s a portrait of a Christmas; of a house, of a family, of being a guest. And of something harder to define: something to do with other people’s families, and other people’s lives, and what it’s like to love someone. What it’s like to be invited to share somebody else’s Christmas (and/or somebody else’s life).
A poem addressed to a “you” always feels to me like a love letter, and this one is no exception.
The only constellation I can find / is one astronomers never name: your house, / defined by Christmas lights. People have always used stars to navigate, but sometimes you need something a little closer to home: the places and people you love best.
A thing I love a lot about this poem is the way it’s not just a love letter to one person, but through that person to everyone that person loves: [...]Tonight, standing outside, / I connect every point. You becomes your mother, your father, your three brothers. The mother and the father and the brothers become language and maths and trains and music. It becomes a list of ways to connect. A framework you could build a life around.
Sometimes it seems to me that adulthood is a process of building a Christmas, and the process of building a Christmas is really shorthand for the process of building a life
One day, maybe, you could have a life this solid: a life that could rattle without breaking. A life that could be rebuilt from light: that if the house itself vanished / new builders could start from that luminous skeleton. Even if the house vanished, you know: we’d be OK. We have the lights; we have each other. We have some way of getting home.
Sometimes it seems to me that adulthood is a process of building a Christmas, and the process of building a Christmas is really a shorthand for the process of building a life.
At Christmas you can’t help but remember all the people you have been at every Christmas before: a small girl in a shiny party frock with a mouth full of Quality Street, and a lustful gaze fixed firmly on a stack of new books and a doll’s house tea-set; a sulky teenager hoping against hope for a hot pink Motorola Pebl; the sad, sad person you were last Christmas when you stumbled blindly from hospital waiting room to someone else’s sofabed and back again. You carry all these people you’ve been around with you like a Russian doll, and at Christmas (unpacking ornaments, unfolding stars from careful tissue), you can’t help but take them out and look at them.
Who were you then? Who are you now? What will I keep? What have I lost? What will you bring from your life, and me from mine, and what will we make together with the things we have brought? What kind of Christmas? What kind of life?
I am always carrying, now, the shadow of last Christmas, when somebody I loved was in a not-quite coma. I am always aware of how fragile things can be. I bring that to the table: I bring the ghost to the feast. And yet there is so much more, too.
I was once asked to write an article about the true meaning of Christmas. “Something to remind us it isn’t about presents,” the email said, and I thought about it a lot. I didn’t agree; I still don’t. I think presents matter.
More accurately, I think giving things matters. Giving things, sharing things, making things beautiful for each other (the mother in the poem laying the table with the white damask, the father with his brush / tipped in red acrylic). Making imperfect and precarious music together. And letting yourself see the solid goodness of stone and of home, and letting yourself step towards it. I think the poet is on the brink of going inside, at the end of the poem. I do. I believe that.
For you have to, I think, let yourself give in to the shape of Christmas. It is easy to be cynical. Too easy to be afraid that something will go wrong this year, too; too easy to be afraid of loving people with everything you have. Too easy to try and hide from traditions, and memories, and all the people you’ve been and all the people you love. It won’t work, though.
I tried and yet, here I am: Christmas week, and writing about Christmas. Sometimes you have to give into the shape of something already determined.
Merry Christmas, friends. Love your people the very best you can. There’s nothing else to do; that’s the whole point.