top of page

Christmas Poems: The Truth Born In Love


Christmas Poems: The Truth Born In Love


I love poems. I also love Christmas and took a research journey to identify those poems that celebrate Jesus’ (4BC – 30 AD) birth and the Truth and Love surrounding that holy event.

The first Christmas poem


The first poem was really a hymn about Jesus’ birth, Jesus refúlsit ómnium, written in Latin by St. Hilary of Poitiers (c.310 – c. 367), bishop of Poitiers and a doctor of the Church. The first official Christmas was celebrated in 336, and this may have been created then.


Only the first verse is about Jesus’ birth.


Jesus, clothed in splendor light,


Redeemer of all nations,


let all the faithful


celebrate him with a canticle of praise.


The other 5 verses cover Jesus’ baptism by John*(5 BC-29 AD), His ministry, and His sacrifice for our redemption.


It does set the theme for “O Come All Ye Faithful” which is foundational and standard in all Christmas poetry.


But these early works were more hymns than poems, sung in cathedrals and churches by choirs and congregations, not the poems written by individuals for use in private settings of tranquility, or the joyful, merry carols composed, enjoyed and sung by people to celebrate Jesus’ birth.


“Adeste Fideles” was also created to be sung in cathedrals and churches in the 13th century. It first appeared in English as “O Come All Ye Faithful” in 1841:


1 O come, all ye faithful,

joyful and triumphant!

O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!

Come and behold him,

born the King of angels.


Refrain:

O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!

2 God from true God, and

Light from Light eternal,

born of a virgin, to earth he comes!

Only-begotten Son of God the Father: [Refrain]


3 Sing, choirs of angels,

sing in exultation,

sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!

Glory to God, all glory in the highest: [Refrain]


4 Yea, Lord, we greet thee,

born this happy morning;

Jesus, to thee, be all glory giv’n!

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing: [Refrain]


John Francis Wade; Translator: Frederick Oakeley (1841; alt)


15th Century Christmas poems


There were earlier poems in English celebrating Christmas, the first in the 15th century, “I syng of a mayden.” Written in Middle English, it is a beautifully simple celebration of Jesus’ birth and the Virgin birth. Below is a modern English presentation:


I sing of a maiden

That is matchless,

King of all kings

For her son she chose.


He came as still

Where his mother was

As dew in April

That falls on the grass.


He came as still

Where his mother lay

As dew in April

That falls on the spray.


Mother and maiden

There was never, ever one but she;

Well may such a lady

God’s mother be.


Chaucerian scholar Derek Pearsall writes:


A brain and a subtle ear has gone into the making of this poem…celebrating the mystery of Christ’s conception. Dew falling on grass, flower, and spray (traditional imagery, deriving from OT texts such as Psalm 72:6) suggests ease, grace, and delicacy generally (not progressive stages of insemination). The emphasis on Mary’s freedom of choice, at the moment of the annunciation, is theologically strictly proper.


16th Century Christmas poems


Early in the 16th century was this favorite, verses 1 and 2 attributed to Martin Luther*(1483-1556), verse 3 to John T. McFarland (1892)


1 Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,

the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.


2 The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,

but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky,

and stay by my side until morning is nigh.


3 Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay

close by me forever and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in your tender care,

and take us to heaven to live with you there.


Robert Southwell (1561 –1595) was an English Jesuit priest executed by Queen Elizabeth I and later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He left the world this beautiful poem:


Behold a silly tender Babe, in freezing winter night;

In homely manger trembling lies, alas a piteous sight:

The inns are full, no man will yield this little Pilgrim bed,

But forced He is with silly beasts, in crib to shroud His head.


The word “silly” here is used in its archaic sense of : RUSTIC, PLAIN : lowly in station : HUMBLE:: HELPLESS, WEAK


Despise Him not for lying there, first what He is enquire:

An orient pearl is often found, in depth of dirty mire;

Weigh not His crib, His wooden dish, nor beasts that by Him feed:

Weigh not His mother’s poor attire, nor Joseph’s simple weed.


An “orient pearl” is one of great luster and “weed” means clothing.


This stable is a Prince’s court, the crib His chair of state:

The beasts are parcel of His pomp, the wooden dish His plate.

The persons in that poor attire, His royal liveries wear,

The Prince Himself is come from heaven, this pomp is prized there.


“Liveries” are servants’ uniforms, and “wight” below means “man.”


With joy approach, O Christian wight, do homage to thy King,

And highly prize this humble pomp, which He from heaven doth bring.


17th Century Christian poems


John Donne*(1572-1631) was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, King James I’s*(1566-1625) favorite preacher. He is considered the greatest of the metaphysical poets. This sonnet displays his skill.


Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,

Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,

There He hath made Himself to His intent

Weak enough, now into the world to come.


But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?

Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,

Stars and wise men will travel to prevent

The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.


Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He

Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?

Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,


That would have need to be pitied by thee?

Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,

With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.


18th Century Christmas poems


Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748) was an English clergyman and poet who put the Psalter into English verse and wrote 750 hymns. Among them is my Dad’s favorite: “Joy to the World.”


Joy to the world; the Lord is come;


Let Earth receive her king:


Let every heart prepare Him room,


And Heaven and nature sing,


And Heaven and nature sing,


And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.



Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns;


Let men their songs employ;


While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains


Repeat the sounding joy,


Repeat the sounding joy,


Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.



No more let sins and sorrows grow,


Nor thorns infest the ground;


He comes to make His blessings flow


Far as the curse is found,


Far as the curse is found,


Far as, far as, the curse is found.



He rules the world with truth and grace,


And makes the nations prove


The glories of His righteousness,


And wonders of His love,


And wonders of His love,


And wonders, wonders, of His love.


Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David 1719


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) introduced the Romantic movement with William Wordsworth. A brilliant linguist, philosopher, and poet, he may have been the last man to have read everything in print. He was also anti-war, as we see in this remarkable poem:


A Christmas Carol


I.



The Shepherds went their hasty way,


And found the lowly stable-shed


Where the Virgin-Mother lay:


And now they checked their eager tread,


For to the Babe, that at her bosom clung,


A Mother’s song the Virgin-Mother sung.



II.



They told her how a glorious light,


Streaming from a heavenly throng,


Around them shone, suspending night!


While sweeter than a Mother’s song,


Blest Angels heralded the Saviour’s birth,


Glory to God on high! and Peace on Earth.



III.



She listened to the tale divine,


And closer still the Babe she pressed;


And while she cried, the Babe is mine!


The milk rushed faster to her breast:


Joy rose within her, like a summer’s morn;


Peace, Peace on Earth! the Prince of Peace is born.



IV.



Thou Mother of the Prince of Peace,


Poor, simple, and of low estate!


That Strife should vanish, Battle cease,


O why should this thy soul elate?


Sweet Music’s loudest note, the Poet’s story,—


Did’st thou ne’er love to hear of Fame and Glory?



V.



And is not War a youthful King,


A stately Hero clad in Mail?


Beneath his footsteps laurels spring;


Him Earth’s majestic monarchs' hail


Their Friend, their Playmate! and his bold bright eye


Compels the maiden’s love-confessing sigh.



VI.



Tell this in some more courtly scene,


“To maids and youths in robes of state!


“I am a woman poor and mean,


“And therefore is my Soul elate.


“War is a ruffian, all with guilt defiled,


“That from the aged Father tears his Child!



VII.



“A murderous fiend, by fiends adored,


“He kills the Sire and starves the Son;


“The Husband kills, and from her board


“Steals all his Widow’s toil had won;


“Plunders God’s world of beauty; rends away


“All safety from the Night, all comfort from the Day.



VIII.



“Then wisely is my soul elate,


“That Strife should vanish, Battle cease:


“I’m poor and of a low estate,


“The Mother of the Prince of Peace.


“Joy rises in me, like a summer’s morn:


“Peace, Peace on Earth, the Prince of Peace is born.”



19th Century Christmas poems


Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was one of America’s greatest poets writing hundreds of short poems in letter but that were never published in her lifetime. Here is one on the Nativity.



The Savior must have been


A docile Gentleman—


To come so far so cold a Day


For little Fellowmen—



The Road to Bethlehem


Since He and I were Boys


Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be


A rugged Billion Miles


Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was a major Victorian poet and deeply spiritual Anglican.


Love came down at Christmas,

Love all lovely, Love Divine;

Love was born at Christmas,

Star and Angels gave the sign.


Worship we the Godhead,

Love Incarnate, Love Divine;

Worship we our Jesus:

But wherewith for sacred sign?


Love shall be our token,

Love be yours and love be mine,

Love to God and all men,

Love for plea and gift and sign.


You probably know this poem which was set to music and has become a popular Christmas carol.


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.



Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,


Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;


Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,


The ox and ass and camel which adore.



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.



What can I give Him, poor as I am?


If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;


If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;


Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


20th Century Christmas poems


Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) is famous for his poem “Trees,” but penned this moving Christmas poem just before he was killed in action in World War I.


Wartime Christmas


Led by a star, a golden star,


The youngest star, an olden star,


Here the kings and the shepherds are,


A kneeling on the ground.


What did they come to the inn to see?


God in the Highest, and this is He,


A baby asleep on His mother’s knee


And with her kisses crowned.



Now is the earth a dreary place,


A troubled place, a weary place.


Peace has hidden her lovely face


And turned in tears away.


Yet the sun, through the war-cloud, sees


Babies asleep on their mother’s knees.


While there are love and home—and these—


There shall be Christmas Day.



Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in India but became the first and youngest (age 41) poet to win the Nobel Prize in 1907.



A Nativity


The Babe was laid in the Manger


Between the gentle kine—


All safe from cold and danger—


“But it was not so with mine,


(With mine! With mine!)


“Is it well with the child, is it well?”


The waiting mother prayed.


“For I know not how he fell,


And I know not where he is laid.”



A Star stood forth in Heaven;


The Watchers ran to see


The Sign of the Promise given—


“But there comes no sign to me.


(To me! To me!)


“My child died in the dark.


Is it well with the child, is it well?


There was none to tend him or mark,


And I know not how he fell.”



The Cross was raised on high;


The Mother grieved beside—


“But the Mother saw Him die


And took Him when He died.


(He died! He died!)


“Seemly and undefiled


His burial-place was made—


Is it well, is it well with the child?


For I know not where he is laid.”



On the dawning of Easter Day


Comes Mary Magdalene;


But the Stone was rolled away,


And the Body was not within—


(Within! Within!)


“Ah, who will answer my word?”


The broken mother prayed.


“They have taken away my Lord,


And I know not where He is Laid.”



“The Star stands forth in Heaven.


The watchers watch in vain


For Sign of the Promise given


Of peace on Earth again—


(Again! Again!)


“But I know for Whom he fell”—


The steadfast mother smiled,


“Is it well with the child—is it well?


It is well—it is well with the child!”



John Betjeman (1906-1984) was a Poet Laureate of the UK and an Anglican whose faith comes through in the last stanzas of his 1955 poem, Christmas:


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?



And is it true? For if it is,


No loving fingers tying strings


Around those tissued fripperies,


The sweet and silly Christmas things,


Bath salts and inexpensive scent


And hideous tie so kindly meant,



No love that in a family dwells,


No carolling in frosty air,


Nor all the steeple-shaking bells


Can with this single Truth compare –


That God was man in Palestine


And lives today in Bread and Wine.


Betjeman’s work is still under copyright and this excerpt is cited here for educational purposes. You can listen to Betjeman recite the poem in its entirety here:


I want to close with a poem that is not a Christmas poem but one that Betjeman uses as a prayer to those who once believed but have lost their faith:


Wikipedia cites it here as a response to a humanist’s radio broadcast:


But most of us turn slow to see


The figure hanging on a tree


And stumble on and blindly grope


Upheld by intermittent hope,


God grant before we die we all


May see the light as did St. Paul.



I affirm that hope and prayer and ask the Lord Jesus to reveal Himself to every reader and that we all can join in singing:


O Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord.





26 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page