The wooden birds made in Haruo Uchiyama’s workshop have to be exact models, down to the layering of a feather, the curve of a beak. They have to be exact because they are made for the visually impaired, to give them a sense of what kind of creature produces birdsong. “Blind people can hear the voices of crows and sparrows every day,” Uchiyama says, “but they don't understand how they look or their shape or size.”
Uchiyama’s craft is a unique form of kindness. But it is also, in a way, what every artist does: to give some shape to what is only overheard, to make the unseen tangible. People turn to poetry when words have fallen short of a mystery: at weddings, at occasions of collective mourning—and at Christmas, a festival that has inspired poems from both believers and atheists.
Thomas Hardy, for instance, rejected Christian doctrine, but could not let go of the story of Bethlehem. In one poem, Hardy remembered a Christmas Eve of his childhood, when an “elder” repeated the legend that oxen, through some ancestral memory, would kneel on the anniversary of the Redeemer’s birth. Few would believe such a thing now, says Hardy, and yet . . .
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.
The poem preserves a hope that would otherwise have died with childhood. This nostalgia is common in Christmas poems. John Clare, writing a century earlier than Hardy, described the old customs that made the season “dear” to him: the gingerbread and elderberry wine, the wassailing and Morris-dancing, the children sliding on the ice, the evergreens decorating the windows and walls. But these simple traditions, though hallowed by time and preserved in poetry, are passing away.
Pride grows above simplicity
And spurns it from her haughty mind
And soon the poets song will be
The only refuge they can find
As they age, the children Clare watches will forget these joys. It is only “the poets song” which can reconnect the jaded adult with his past.
Tho manhood bids such raptures dye
And throws such toys away as vain
Yet memory loves to turn her eye
And talk such pleasures oer again
T. S. Eliot, unlike Hardy or Clare a conservative Anglican, believed this nostalgia was a spiritual resource: A child’s fascination with the Christmas tree might last through “later experience,” the “fatigue, the tedium, / The awareness of death,” which grinds down adult belief and hope. In a different seasonal poem, “Journey of the Magi,” Eliot tells of the cold, uncomfortable expedition to seek the Christ Child (“the ways deep and the weather sharp”). But the poem is also about the adult’s return, through memory, to simpler days; and the Christian’s return, through endurance and patience, to a living belief.
Eliot’s poem seems to strike a chord with non-believers, and maybe it speaks to how the atheist or agnostic glimpses Christian truth: as something vanishingly small, at the end of a long and perhaps impossible journey. For the Christian, too, God enters the world without pomp, wishing to be found and loved, rather than to overwhelm and dazzle.
God Incarnate came into the world as though not wishing to be noticed. Perhaps this historical fact is more easily appreciated in a time when societies and lawmakers are very happy not to notice God at all. The Christmas poems of seventeenth-century writers like Milton and Crashaw are tributes to a glorious King; later poets are more preoccupied by the obscurity of Christ’s birth. In Christina Rossetti’s well-known lines, the snow and the distance of time have almost blotted out the scene:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Rossetti’s poem turns down the volume, like John Masefield’s “Christmas Eve at Sea,” a meditation in an oceanic hush, or Robert Bridges’s “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913,” whose narrator stands on a hilltop, overhearing the distant Christmas bells but “Heark’ning in the aspect / of th’ eternal silence.”
In John Betjeman’s “Christmas,” the noise and busyness of festive preparations fade out and we are left with a direct question:
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
The poem is often quoted in sermons at this time of year, both because it is unimprovable and because it expresses the kind of halting belief which can be a prelude to the gift of supernatural faith. Like many Christmas poems, Betjeman’s is about the suspension of disbelief. And it quietly invites us to ask whether disbelief is such a grown-up response after all.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.