February 24, 2024

What constitute a Christmas poem? It could be a snow drift or evergreens, colorful peppermint candy or the baby Jesus. The most famous poem associated with the holiday is probably “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with characters such as silent mice, clattering reindeer, and gift-carrying Santa Claus. However, my favorite poem of the season is the prologue to the Gospel of John, although it lacks stables and mangers and swaddled babes. “Christmas poem” is a broad category, occupied by a wide range of poems and populated by a startling variety of poets, and I was reminded of this when I finally tracked down a copy of a book I’d long heard about but never read. “American Christmas” was first published in 1965; I now own a copy of the second edition of the anthology, published two years later, with some additional poems. The book is not only a what’s what of Christmas—its weather, rituals, trimmings, origins, and meanings-but a who’s who of poetry: W. H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and many more. Christmas turns out to be an excellent subject for a collection of poems: as a theme, it is more specific than “spring” and seizes attention more than “grief,” but like those two it is widely shared and regularly recurring, and seems to call for something more than prose. The writers in “American Christmas” range from the devoutly Christian—there’s a “Carol” by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton—to the decidedly not, including the Jewish poet Howard Nemerov, who casts a cold eye on Santa Claus, calling him an “overstuffed confidence man.” And the poems themselves, though all written by Americans, roam all around the world, from expected towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth to unexpected cities like Oaxaca and Ulm, and traverse large swaths of the country, too, from Alabama to Michigan, across the fields of New England and the streets of Manhattan. But perhaps the most surprising thing about “American Christmas” is its publisher: Hallmark, known for cards, had dabbled in poetry with anthologies. Maya Angelou, who had a partnership with Hallmark, made millions, while the poets in “American Christmas” made very little. Most of the poems had appeared elsewhere, including Randall Jarrell’s “The Augsburg Adoration,” but the poem by Gwendolyn Brooks is not something I’ve seen anywhere else. Called “Christmas at Church,” it begins with the sound of an organ, whose notes build an architecture of noise that protects parishioners from the worries outside. The speaker is moved by the religious space more than the sermon delivered in it. “We abide in beauty,” she says, adding that, for some, “the Christmas message is a Medicine,” but, for her, the booming music and the high ceilings are more healing and soothing. In the poem’s final stanza, the speaker picks up some of the preacher’s language, drawing on hallowed words for the Lord, including “refuge” and “Strengthener,” resolving them into a sense of agency about the world beyond the sanctuary. “To gird us, spur us back into the flame / And steam,” Brooks writes. “Our forces, faith and confidence. / Our guide, the superstructure of a Name.” Those last three lines seem ambiguously about whether the speaker has surrendered to religious faith or exceeded it. Langston Hughes’s “Christmas Eve: Nearly Midnight in New York” is another poem in the anthology that wrestles with the relevance of religious belief in a secular age. Despite these themes, it is enough just to remember Christmases of years past. E. E. Cummings’ “Little Tree” can bring to mind such memories of childhood. Beauty may repair what’s broken, as when decorations adorn a cut-down tree. Frost’s final stanza makes good on that modal verb “must,” since the speaker is still trying to make his peace with what has happened, not only to him but to the Spruce tree itself.