R.S. Thomas: Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ Child

A Christmas carol confession – sometimes it’s easier to remember a carol’s parody than its original words:

While Shepherds washed their socks by night,
All seated round the tub,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And gave their socks a scrub.

England’s laxative-producing Beecham Company issued a Christmas Carol Annual. For one year’s edition, according to the anecdote, the senior Beecham asked his son to write a parody of a familiar carol that would plug Beecham’s unplugging pills. The son – later, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), noted orchestra conductor – came up with:

Hark! The herald angels sing
Beecham’s pills are just the thing
Two for a woman, one for a child,
They will make you meek and mild.

Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ ChildBeecham’s parody was not the first step in the commercialization of Christmas. That step was taken when it was decided, in the fourth century, to observe the birth of Jesus in the bleak mid-winter. At the time of the winter solstice, the celebration of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. During Saturnalia, the wine-laced, toga-dropping Roman festival honoring the god Saturn.

Ever since the linking of Christ’s Birth with Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, caroling, partying, and spending have run on parallel tracks, with accelerating speed in recent decades. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Accompanied, predictably, by ever increasing spurts of sacred spleen.

R.S. Thomas, on the other hand, simply says that the commercialization of Christmas can never overtop the Christ Child:

Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit –

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Erect capital’s arch” – “Christmas Eve,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 13.

R.S. Thomas – Not Cut Out To Be An Angel

by Andrew Wyeth

by Andrew Wyeth

I wonder how R. S. Thomas would respond to being remembered as a cut-out angel.

The retirement community where I live had a holiday appeal for contributions to its benevolent care fund, so I wrote a check and noted that it was in memory of R. S. Thomas. Some days later, I walked past a window and noticed paper angels floating on the glass. One was designated “in memory of R. S. Thomas.”

I can see him stooping to look at the inscription, then straightening up to quip: “I’m not cut-out to be an angel.”

Certainly, RS was not cut out to be the angel on the e-Christmas card I received the other day. After clicking and waiting for it to load, I was instructed to click on an angel, which, animated by my click, began to flit like a mechanical butterfly about a Christmas tree. As she fluttered up to candles, they lit up; when she flew by balls, they sang portions of carols. At last, she landed on the top of the tree, and became an ornament herself.

RS’s Christmas poems are not ornamental; they have an edge – no twee angels on his tree:

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.

For RS, the tree of Christmas pointed to the tree of Calvary.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“They came over the snow” – “Hill Christmas,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 42.

R.S. Thomas’s Christmas Eve

Poet R.S. Thomas 1994

R.S. Thomas in 1994

One of my favorite R. S. Thomas quips is: “There always have been / queues of the imaginatively unemployed.”

My grandson Colin is not queued up. When he reads, his imagination is so fully employed that he’s oblivious to neighboring reality. And when you ask him about the story, he lives what he retells.

In another poem, Thomas calls this “celebrating the sacrament / of the imagination.”

Thomas leads into his sacramental celebration by writing about Christmas Eves when he . . .

. . . walked up hill lanes to take a present of home-made cakes to a bedridden farmer. . . . The air cold and clear, the ash trees bone-white against the sky. A friendly stream of warm light flowing  from the farm window, and above, the shrill harshness of the stars. And if a fox barked, it was a  merry sound, for on such a Christmas Eve one could believe with Thomas Hardy’s peasant in ‘The  Oxen’ [1915] that all the beasts were kneeling:

CHRISTMAS EVE, and twelve of the clock.

                ‘Now they are all on their knees,’

An elder said as we sat in a flock

                By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictures the meek mild creatures where

                They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

                To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

                In these years! Yet I feel,

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.

“’Hoping it might be so’!” Thomas exclaims.

“But it is so.”

Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“There always have been” – “Parables,” No Truce with the Furies, 20.

“celebrating the sacrament” – “Homage to Wallace Stevens,” No Truce with the Furies, 62.

“walked up hill lanes” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 46.

“CHRISTMAS EVE, and twelve of the clock” – “The Oxen,” Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, no. 403, p. 468.

Climate and Culture Cradle the Nativity | Poetry and Prose of R.S. Thomas

Jerusalem 2013, photo by Olivier Fitoussi via www.haaretz.com

Jerusalem 2013, photo by Olivier Fitoussi via http://www.haaretz.com

A White-Christmas-Dreamer? – No way!

There’s the Christmas of 1966, when impassable roads in southeastern Pennsylvania kept corks from popping and church doors from opening.

Having planned to spend Christmas with Nancy’s parents, our fridge was bare. Friends rescued us, inviting us to trudge through knee-high snow to their welcoming table. Nancy carried Peter in utero, I cradled ten-months-old Anne in my arms.

A warm memory . . . but I prefer snow-clear roads.

For me, Christmas means being with family, something that depends upon driving, and a reminder that what Christmas means to us is not necessarily what Christmas means.

Christmas for us may mean a holiday imposed by the culture in which we live. Or it may mean a time of festivity that was filled for previous generations, but not for us, with religious content. Or it may mean God-with-us in a baby born in a stable.

Was it snowing outside when Jesus was born?

In recent few days, there’s been snow in Bethlehem, and Nancy and I walked through snow on the Mount of Olives in early February of 1988. But when Jesus was born?

We don’t know. We don’t even know his birth’s time of year. The stable could have been a cool cave in the midst of a heat wave.

How we celebrate Jesus’ birth depends upon factors that have little or nothing to do with the nativity itself – climate and culture.

R. S. Thomas notes that “Christianity has tended to be transformed or adapted in every country into which it has made its way.”

Commercialization has twisted the dough of Christmas into marketable pretzels – my restatement of Thomas’s point.

“But the subtlest influence,” Thomas continues, “remains climatic. . . . .

Our more temperate winters [in England and Wales] afford a dual approach. We can relish the coldness of the season, the red cheeks, the high blood, without becoming insensitive to the claims of the hungry bird at our window, the pathos of bare boughs, and the darker associations of red berries in the snow.

In a poem published after Thomas’s death, he says “the holly will remind / us how love bleeds.”

Thomas continues his comments on how our geographical place shapes what Christmas means for us:

Also our economic prosperity over many centuries built up a feeling of snugness and warmth and good cheer within. ‘Fire and sleet and candlelight’ – these lend zest to Christmas indoors in a comfortable home, without blinding us to the plight of the less fortunate without, those who are caught in ‘the cauld, cauld blast’.

Thomas did not promote the gospel of the survival of the fittest. Rather, he preached the gospel of caring love for the least fit, for “the less fortunate without” – the homeless, whether they be men and women and children, or birds.

Christmas means different things for us, depending in large measure upon where we are placed in the world and in life.

But what does Christmas mean? Thomas essays an answer:

The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.


Prose and poetry of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Christianity has tended to be transformed” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 44-45.

“the holly will remind” – “Festival,” Residues, 47.

“The moon is born” – “Nativity,” Experimenting With An Amen, 46.

The Thin, Crisp Sound of Christmas | Poems of R.S. Thomas

iceWhat does the sound of breaking flatbread – perhaps for serving holiday canapes – have in common with the sound of “Christ”?

Nothing, you say?

Then each of us lacks the ear of a poet.

When poets hear words, their minds do not immediately leap to what the word signifies. First, they think of the word as a “thing” in itself; as something that has weight and sound and color.

For poets, words have qualities of their own that are distinct from their job of helping us make “sense” in our speaking and writing.

So when R. S. Thomas hears “Christ,” he hears the sound of thin sheets of ice cracking under winter-walking feet. Only second does the word signify for him one of the titles given to Jesus.

Now, permit my mind to do a flip:

When I’m asked if any of Thomas’s sermons have been published, I reply, “A Christmas one.” Giving it a re-look recently, I realized it’s less a homily than a Christmas essay.

Thomas, in his opening paragraph, quotes the first line of Christina Rossetti’s familiar poem, which is often sung as a carol:

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, . . .

Then Thomas observes that Rossetti’s words bring

. . . that sense of coldness and crispness which has become the conventional environment of an English Christmas. How many children and grown-ups feel a secret desire for snow, or at least a touch of frost on Christmas Eve? The very word Christ has that thin, crisp sound so suggestive of frost and snow and the small sheets of ice that crack and splinter under our feet, even as the Host is broken in the priest’s fingers.

“The very word Christ has that thin, crisp sound so suggestive of . . . the Host [being] broken in the priest’s fingers,” or of flatbread snapping as we ready hors d’oeuvres.

In his poem “The Moor,” Thomas tells us that he

           . . . walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

Thomas’s priestly experience of standing at the altar, breaking the matzah-like Eucharistic wafer, prepared his ear for the sound of the wind crumbling on him as he walked on the moor. And his experience of snow . . . .

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

Prose and poetry of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“that sense of coldness and crispness” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose (third edition), 44.

“walked on” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.

“They came over the snow to the bread’s” – “Hill Christmas,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 42.