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John Betjeman's "Christmas"

Updated on December 20, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Betjeman

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Christmas"

According to a BBC tribute to John Betjeman, "Depression was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth." Regarding Christianity and the Christmas story, he hoped it was true but entertained great fear that is was not. Betjeman's doubt and depression, quite possibly, resulted from his failure to learn enough about the history and influence of Christ to appreciate and accurately understand them.

John Betjeman's "Christmas" consists of eight six-line stanzas with the rime scheme ABABCC, with the exception of the first stanza, which has the rime scheme ABCBDD. The odd scheme develops because the third line ends with the word "night" which fails to rime with "ring" from the first line.

To make up for this lopsided rime, line three has an internal rime: "And lamp-oil light across the night." (My emphasis added.)

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Christmas

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

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.

Reading of Betjeman's "Christmas"

Commentary

First Stanza: Sights and Sounds of Christmas

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The speaker describes the sights and sounds that begin the Christmas holiday celebration with Advent: bells are ringing, and "stain-glass windows" are shining with red and green traditional colors.

The rime scheme sounds forced and childish as the speaker seems be expressing himself about an scene and situation for which he has little true interest. It's as if he is forced to stare at objects and write about them despite his deep desire to go and do something else.

Second Stanza: A Lackluster "Nice" Looking Church

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

The speaker reports that the foliage outside will be brought inside the church for decoration, and he adds a somewhat blasé tone: "So that the villagers can say / 'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day."

Continuing his lackluster attitude, the speaker observing the villagers will be able to say "the church looks nice," is especially grating to those who hold in high worshipful esteem the One for Whom all this is done.

Third Stanza: Disdain Made Symbolic

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

The speaker continues to observe the signs that indicate that season: "And bunting in the red Town Hall / Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'."

Also continuing is the speaker's growing disdain for the objects and people he is observing. He manages to insult corporations, tenements, and even the town hall. The paper decorations he sees hanging in those tenements symbolize the light-weight tone in which he continues to wallow.

Fourth Stanza: Whither They Scurry

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

The speaker has now moved from Advent to Christmas Eve: "And London shops on Christmas Eve / Are strung with silver bells and flowers."

The speaker also comments on the shop workers, as he throws a glimpse to the sky: the "hurrying clerks" leave London for their "pigeon-haunted classic towers," and the "marbled-clouds go scudding by." And so as not to sound redundant for no reason, he adds, "The many-steepled London sky."

Fifth Stanza: Ridicule of People Who Celebrate Christmas

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

Next, the speaker makes rather rude comments about people and the ways they celebrate: "girls in slacks remember Dad, / And oafish louts remember Mum." And even though children, of course, eagerly anticipate Christmas morning, this speaker's disdain for the whole affair blinds him to anything worth positive anticipation.

The Christmas-morning bells ring out a welcome to all: "Even to shining ones who dwell / Safe in the Dorchester Hotel." The Dorchester Hotel is famous for its wealthy patrons.

Of course, no complaint could ever be complete without scorching the rich simply for being rich. The speaker castigates the rich, calling them shining ones and implying that being safe is a virtue only for the wealthy who hang out at the Dorchester. This speaker will see to it that those wealthy patrons are not safe from ridicule.

Sixth Stanza: What Is Truth?

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,

In the sixth stanza, the speaker gets to the heart of the matter: questioning the Christmas story about the birth of Jesus the Christ.

The speaker asks the question: "And is it true" that "The Maker of the stars and sea / Become a Child on earth for me?"

By now, readers/listeners should be cognizant that this speaker is not asking this question in good faith—nor likely any faith at all. His stereotypical and clichéd responses to the sight and sounds of Christmas have rendered him an unworthy observer of this holiday.

Seventh Stanza: Inability to Hear the Answer to "What Is Truth?"

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,

Then the speaker repeats the question: "And is it true?" He then catalogues the various gifts that people are customer to give, which the speaker deems frivolous, cheap, and ultimately worthless, even though they are "kindly meant."

The fact that he repeats this question implies that he is sure there is no answer—and obviously he is correct. He is asking this question in the same vain that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, what is truth? Jesus' reply indicated that Pilate was unable to hear the "truth" even as it is uttered.

When a speaker ridicules a religion even before understanding the first principles that underlie it and then asks, "what is truth?," one can be sure that the question will remain unanswerable for that person, until he has evolved beyond his current inability to hear.

Eighth Stanza: The Five Great World Religions All Offer Truth

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.

After moving again through a catalogue of things that take place at Christmas time from decorating to gift giving, the unfortunate, low-information speaker makes a bizarre, ignorant statement when he claims that if the Christmas story is true, nothing can compare to it. This claim demonstrates that the speaker has no understanding or knowledge that there are five great world religions, each with a story that does compare quite favorably.

Rime vs Historical Accuracy

The last two lines of Betjeman's "Christmas" demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of history: "That God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine."

"Palestine" did not exist at the time Jesus was born. It came into existence in 70 A.D. when the Romans renamed the Land of Israel "Palestine" (after the Philistines, enemies of the Israelites) as they slaughtered many Israelites and sent others fleeing.

Perhaps Betjeman used that term simply for the sake of rime. If so, too bad that he found rime more important than historical accuracy!

Also, surely, Betjeman understood that "Bread and Wine" are symbolic, not literal; although the poet's hitherto having called himself a hack would lead one to a muddy conclusion.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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