Michael Marks' "A Soldier's Christmas"
Introduction and Text of "A Soldier's Christmas"
The speaker in both poems is awake on Christmas Eve and hears someone make a faint noise. In Major Livingston's "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," the speaker, of course, encounters that jolly old elf, Santa Claus, while Marks' version has the father/speaker encounter a soldier.
A Soldier's Christmas
The embers glowed softly, and in their dim light,
I gazed round the room and I cherished the sight.
My wife was asleep, her head on my chest,
my daughter beside me, angelic in rest.
Outside the snow fell, a blanket of white,
Transforming the yard to a winter delight.
The sparkling lights in the tree, I believe,
Completed the magic that was Christmas Eve.
My eyelids were heavy, my breathing was deep,
Secure and surrounded by love I would sleep
in perfect contentment, or so it would seem.
So I slumbered, perhaps I started to dream.
The sound wasn't loud, and it wasn't too near,
But I opened my eye when it tickled my ear.
Perhaps just a cough, I didn't quite know,
Then the sure sound of footsteps outside in the snow.
My soul gave a tremble, I struggled to hear,
and I crept to the door just to see who was near.
Standing out in the cold and the dark of the night,
A lone figure stood, his face weary and tight.
A soldier, I puzzled, some twenty years old
Perhaps a Marine, huddled here in the cold.
Alone in the dark, he looked up and smiled,
Standing watch over me, and my wife and my child.
"What are you doing?" I asked without fear
"Come in this moment, it's freezing out here!
Put down your pack, brush the snow from your sleeve,
You should be at home on a cold Christmas Eve!"
For barely a moment I saw his eyes shift,
away from the cold and the snow blown in drifts,
to the window that danced with a warm fire's light
then he sighed and he said "It's really all right,
I'm out here by choice. I'm here every night"
"Its my duty to stand at the front of the line,
that separates you from the darkest of times.
No one had to ask or beg or implore me,
I'm proud to stand here like my fathers before me.
My Gramps died at 'Pearl on a day in December,"
then he sighed, "That's a day 'Gramma always remembers."
My dad stood his watch in the jungles of 'Nam
And now it is my turn and so, here I am.
I've not seen my own son in more than a while,
But my wife sends me pictures, he's sure got her smile.
Then he bent and he carefully pulled from his bag,
The red white and blue... an American flag.
"I can live through the cold and the being alone,
Away from my family, my house and my home,
I can stand at my post through the rain and the sleet,
I can sleep in a foxhole with little to eat,
I can carry the weight of killing another
or lay down my life with my sisters and brothers
who stand at the front against any and all,
to insure for all time that this flag will not fall."
"So go back inside," he said, "harbor no fright;
Your family is waiting and I'll be all right."
"But isn't there something I can do, at the least,
"Give you money," I asked, "or prepare you a feast?
It seems all too little for all that you've done,
For being away from your wife and your son."
Then his eye welled a tear that held no regret,
"Just tell us you love us, and never forget
To fight for our rights back at home while we're gone.
To stand your own watch, no matter how long.
For when we come home, either standing or dead,
to know you remember we fought and we bled
is payment enough, and with that we will trust.
That we mattered to you as you mattered to us."
Reading of Michael Marks' ""A Soldier's Christmas"
First Movement: "The embers glowed softly, and in their dim light"
The speaker in Michael Marks' "A Soldier's Christmas" is lying in bed awake and musing about his good fortune; his wife is asleep, "her head on [his] chest," and their daughter is sleeping "angelic" beside them. The speaker's mind then roves outside where it is snowing. He remembers "sparkling lights in the tree" and the snow blanketing the yard with "winter delight." For the speaker, these images are gifts that he calls, "the magic that [is] Christmas Eve."
Second Movement: "My eyelids were heavy, my breathing was deep"
The speaker is growing sleepy with heavy eyelids; his breathing takes on the settled rhythm of sleep. He feels a cherished "contentment" and suggests that he fell asleep. But as he is falling asleep, he begins to dream. The speaker then reports the very vivid dream that begins with a faint sound he cannot identify. He suggests it might be a cough but then asserts that he hears "the sure sound of footsteps outside in the snow."
Third Movement: "My soul gave a tremble, I struggled to hear"
The speaker feels his soul "tremble," a numinous sign that this dream is more than an ordinary dream. He again "struggle[s] to hear" what the unidentified sound might be, as he walks silently to the door. Upon opening the door, he sees "a lone figure" whose "face [is] weary and tight."
The speaker then identifies the lone figure as a young man, perhaps a Marine who is only about twenty years old. The Marine standing "in the cold" "look[s] up and smile[s]." The speaker then claims that the young soldier is "standing watch over me, and my wife and my child."
Fourth Movement: "'What are you doing?' I asked without fear"
The speaker then addresses the young Marine asking him, "What are you doing?" The speaker commands the young man to come inside out of the freezing weather. He further tells the soldier to "put down your pack, brush the snow from your sleeve." And finally, he tells the young man that he "should be home on a cold Christmas Eve!"
The soldier then glances around slightly and informs his would-be host, "It's really all right, / I'm out here by choice. I'm here every night." The soldier's brief sigh tells the speaker that doing his duty is the most important thing to the Marine, despite the hardships he must endure.
Fifth Movement: "'It's my duty to stand at the front of the line'"
The soldier continues his explanation that he is "proud to stand here like my fathers before me." The reader then realizes the metaphysical nature of this discussion. The soldier mentions in tribute his grandfather and father: "My Gramps died at Pearl on a day in December," / Then he sighed, "That's a Christmas Gram always remembers." / My dad stood his watch in the jungles of 'Nam." Continuing this line of proud, dutiful warriors, this soldier proclaims, "And now it is my turn and so, here I am."
Sixth Movement: "'I've not seen my own son in more than a while'"
The soldier then reports that, in fact, he has not seen his own son for a while, but his wife sends him pictures. He is happy to say, "he's sure got her smile." The young man pulls out "an American flag" from his bag, as he continues his declamation, telling the speaker all that he can do to "insure for all time that this flag will not fall": he can endure cold, being far from
home, standing in rain and sleet, sleeping in cramped quarters, going without food. He can even endure the "weight of killing another / Or lay[in]g down his life" with his fellow soldiers, if it means protecting all that that red- white-and-blue stands for.
Seventh Movement: "'So go back inside,' he said, 'harbor no fright'"
The young Marine tells the speaker to go back inside and have faith that all will be well for him and his family. But the speaker then asks what he could do for the young soldier, perhaps give him some money or something to eat. But the speaker also avers, "It seems all too little for all that you've done." The young soldier explains that all he and his fellow soldiers need is for their fellow citizens to love them and "never forget / To fight for our rights back at home while we're gone; / To stand your own watch, no matter how long." Just as the soldiers fight for the protection of their countrymen, citizens must fight also to keep the rights the brave soldiers have guaranteed with so much blood and sacrifice.
Eighth Movement: "'For when we come home, either standing or dead'"
All the soldiers need is the knowledge that their sacrifice matters and that it is remembered by those for whom it is made.
As We Peacefully Sleep
The metaphorical soldier standing outside of every home at Christmas and every day of the year represents all of the brave men and women who have served so bravely and selflessly so that their fellow citizens and families back home can sleep peacefully.
Michael Marks explains how he was motivated to write "A Soldier's Christmas."
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes