• Tag Archives Christmas poems
  • Gabriela Mistral’s “The Christmas Star”

    It can’t be done: after riding through the romantic landscape of Christmas on the rippling back of reassuring cultural signifiers and emotional triggers, one cannot dismount without one’s foot sinking into a steaming pile of religion. Best to know where one stands.

    As far as belief goes, I am agnostic. Don’t grin. What other position is there for the befuddled, the timid, those of us unable, or unwilling to take a bold and heartening leap of faith in either direction? I’m guessing that most of us in this rather weak-kneed tribe strongly suspect the atheists of having the upper hand. Otherwise why not just be a believer and relax? But, however hard I try to defend against the seductions of religion, or even against the impure thoughts a simple belief in God can lead to, I am, at heart, and when it comes down to it, besotted. What my foot sinks into this time of year, especially when dismounting the culture’s sentimental Christmas warhorse, smells good to me.

    I could go on about my lifelong slow dance with Christianity, from the flinty Calvinism in which I was raised, through the mystical traditions and Liberation Theology which spoke loudly to me in college, to my current, and most homelike, resting spot in a “high church” episcopalian congregation. I cannot deny my roving eye; other religions have always enthralled. So-called “Eastern religion”, for one, rather predictably perhaps, given my placement in white, educated middle class, post-1960’s America. But more beguiling has been Judaism, especially that of the Hasidim. I’ve always found profoundly affirming their huge, often unhinged desire for God paired with an ultimate despair of ever being able to cozy up to Him. Through it all, no matter how jilted, injured, or lost they may be, they never let go of that great desire, flamelike and pungent. They can’t. Just as, in the end, I can’t let go the great arc of the Christian narrative.

    I think the reason, beyond its cultural cache, the ever-gripping theater of the Eucharist, the art, the music, the poetry, Bach, beyond the reassuring ease with which I recognize Christianity’s outlines and thereby know my wits and whereabouts, or think I do, the reason it continues to compel me is the vocabulary it provides for talking about matters of far greater import than Christianity itself. The story of Christ’s birth alone, beginning with the annunciation, through its gathering of shepherds, beasts, imperial dictates and petty kings, magi, stable, star, and all the rest, delivers into our fumbling hands almost every tool for living, if not always happily or safely, then always beautifully, rightly, and with greatest fullness. Perhaps my favorite verses in Luke’s famous second chapter are 15 and 16: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into Heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which The Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” How I love these ragtags, who, after having the pants scared off of them, refused to brood or cower, but decided then and there to go, and, by making haste, found, found what amazed them, and found what filled with wonder all who heard their account. I am slow, I find, in learning to live like this.

    Add to this the rest, Christ’s life, works, death and resurrection, what Wallace Stevens called “that old catastrophe”, and what emerges is perhaps the most complex and complete portrait of a deity, at once full-throated and dazzlingly nuanced, of any of the world’s religions, not merely a vision of God, but a god who is, godself, visionary. So that when absurdity beyond measure lands on Newtown, Connecticut, the dean of the cathedral I attend can say to us, “We should not be asking ‘How could God let this happen?’ Rather it is God who asks us, ‘How could you let this happen?’ Such is not God’s vision for us.” And hearing him say this, it strikes me that we have, by and large, so far at least, been content to stop at being terrified by the angels, cowering, brooding, and so have yet to hear what they have announced, and have yet to decide to go, and in the going itself, “with haste”, to find. For Christianity this is the heart of the matter, what we are here for. With such a compelling narrative, mere “belief” seems beside the point.

    And now it is Christmas Day. In our part of the world, as the Earth continues to warm, an enervating brown has become the new white against which we pin our glittering hopes. But last night a light, gracious dusting of snow came while we were at church singing Gloria in excelsis deo, and has remained. Late last week the last of the Newtown slaughtered was, as we say, “laid to rest” in a land which, for the living among us, remains rest-free. I’ve just taken a cake out of the oven. It’s a French version of a cheese cake made with chèvre and whipped egg whites. Later I’ll mix honey with Heering cherry liquor for drizzling. We’ll have this after roast chicken and root vegetables. Sam thinks the roasted roots are a bit if a cliche, but I love them. Our friend Terri has joined us. Our friend Mary Louise will soon be arriving with her marvelous dog, Molly. We’ll exchange a few gifts, which will consist primarily of music and books. We will all acknowledge, whether aloud or in our hearts how good it is that Sam is with us restless ones this year. This is how, today at least, we will love. And we will hold, like the Hasidim, our love, our desire, for God or the idea of God, for each other, for living. No agnosticism here, in this I believe with conviction, that this is how, for today at least, we will go, find, and be found.

    The Christmas Star

    by Gabriela Mistral (tr. Maria Giachetti)

    A little girl
    comes running,
    she caught and carries a star.
    She goes flying, making the plants
    and animals she passes
    bend with fire.

    Her hands already sizzle,
    she tires, wavers, stumbles,
    and falls headlong,
    but she gets right up with it again.

    Her hands don’t burn away,
    nor does the star break apart,
    although her face, arms,
    chest and hair are on fire.

    She burns down to her waist.
    People shout at her
    and she won’t let it go;
    her hands are parboiled,
    but she won’t release the star.

    Oh how she sows its seeds
    as it hums and flies.
    They try to take it away–
    but how can she live
    without her star?

    It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
    It remained without her,
    and now she runs without a body,
    changed transformed into ashes.

    The road catches fire
    and our braids burn,
    and now we all receive her
    because the entire Earth is burning.

  • Joseph Brodsky sends his Christmas Greetings: “December 24, 1971”


    Every year the same: Christmas drops like a meteor into our little buckets of banality, displacing whatever has been disconsolate, complacent, poor, bored, boorish or small about our lives. We raise either a cheer or a howl, depending, or, perhaps if we are honest, one of each. Protest is vain – we’ve had ample warning. The Advent season, at least in the United States, long ago burst its liturgical boundaries, so that now we say, “Christmas music is playing in the stores, decorations are on display… Halloween must me coming.” The crassness of it all, its pervasiveness, is one of the ways we attempt to restore a bit of that displaced banality. That is to say, it is one of the ways we try to manage the holy, or the idea of the holy. Because if we simply let Christmas arrive, unmitigated by Rudolph, Santa, or charge cards –  and we’re talking here about the essence of Christmas, quite apart from its Christian specifics, as the birth of That which can Save Us – if we simply let it blaze its tail through our atmosphere and land in our little buckets, then, first of all, there would be nothing left of our buckets. Then what? An end to all our tyrannies, little and large, by which we know our selves. Mostly we won’t have it.

    Twenty years ago today, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union and handed up a defunct superpower for history’s dissection. Twenty years before that, Joseph Brodsky, living in a monolithic Soviet Union that seemed to be going nowhere any time soon, having suffered Soviet cultural and intellectual tyranny, convicted as a “social parasite”, imprisoned in a mental institution, and about to be forced into exile, wrote: “Herod reigns but the stronger he is,/the more sure, the more certain the wonder./In the constancy of this relation/is the basic mechanics of Christmas.”

    Herod reigns, to be sure. Herod reigns in Russia still, in Syria, North Korea. Herod reigns, too – let’s be honest about this – in all our hearts. But Brodsky says “the wonder” will out. That is how it works.



    Christmas morning: Soon the house will smell of the day-long meal.  Sam, who has not been feeling at all well lately, rallied his energy to make a rustic pork terrine and, because our friend Nathan, a vegetarian, will be joining us, a terrine of roasted vegetables and goat cheese custard. These we will eat with crudité and Prosecco. For dinner, I’ve planned a spiced squash, fennel, and pear soup to be eaten with crusty bread, followed by a salad of asparagus, leeks, new potatoes and artichoke hearts with a tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette.  Then, coq au Riesling, garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and glazed baby red onions and served with little corn pancakes. Nathan will eat the corn pancakes with a stir-fry of red, green, yellow bell peppers with red wine vinegar. For dessert, we will have a chocolate polenta pudding cake.

    Books, as always, will  play a staring role in our gift exchange.  I’ve bought Sam, among other titles, a book called Verdi’s Shakespeare, by Garry Wills. Sam is a besotted idolator of both these men, so when I read a review for this book in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I wondered, for one irrational moment, how Gary had gotten to know my partner so well without my finding out about it. Our friend Mary Louise, who loves to know a little bit about a lot of things, will be receiving E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Sam bought the new Stephen King novel, 11/22/63, for our friend Keith.  If I’m not mistaken, it will be the first time a Stephen King novel has appeared under a Christmas tree I’ve helped decorate. I can’t wait to see Nathan’s face when he opens The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by the Colombian novelist Alvero Mutis. Along with Sam, he is the most passionate reader I know, and he has a special affection for Latin American novels, especially the ones hardly anyone has heard of. And for me?  I’ll let you know.

    Sam is a passionate poetry lover. At some point during the day, he will insist we read poems aloud. One of them will be this one, by Joseph Brodsky:


    DECEMBER 24, 1971

    When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
    At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
    Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
    is the cause of a human assault-wave
    by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
    each one his own king, his own camel.

    Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
    caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
    Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
    orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
    Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
    toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

    And the bearers of moderate gifts
    leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
    disappear into courtyards that gape,
    though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
    not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
    round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

    Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
    brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
    Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
    the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
    In the constancy of this relation
    is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

    That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
    for its coming push tables together.
    No demand for a star for a while,
    but a sort of good will touched with grace
    can be seen in all men from afar,
    and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

    Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
    chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
    Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
    He who comes is a mystery: features
    are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
    not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

    But when drafts through the doorway disperse
    the thick mist of the hours of darkness
    and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
    both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
    in your self you discover; you stare
    skyward, and it’s right there:

    a star.