Christmas Morning - Christmas 2015

‘O Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, thy leaves are so unchanging,  O, Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, such pleasure do you bring me… a symbol of goodwill and love, each shining light, each silver bell….’  Words from a popular Christmas carol of German origin which reminds us of how important the Christmas tree has become in our traditional Christmas celebration. We know that the custom of having a Christmas tree dates back to the 15th century, when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. John Paul II said that as a symbol of Christ, ‘this very ancient custom exalts the value of life, as the evergreen becomes a sign of undying life so Christians are reminded of the tree of life...Jesus Christ, the supreme gift of God to humanity.’

T S Eliot, the poet perhaps best known for his ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ or his ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ on which the musical, Cats is based, wrote a poem called ‘The cultivation of Christmas Trees’, one of six seasonal poems written over a number of years, of which it is the last. The poem is not a guide to growing Christmas trees, the cultivation thereof, rather  the poem’s theme  struggles with Eliot’s concern that we hold on to our inborn capacity for wonder, a faculty that he believes fuels both science and spirituality.

Of course Christmas isn’t particularly a religious festival for everyone, as Eliot notes in the opening words of the poem- ‘There are several attitudes towards Christmas… the social, the torpid, the patently commercial, the rowdy (pubs being open until midnight) And the childish’.

‘The Child’, he writes, ‘wonders at the Christmas tree, let him continue in the spirit of wonder.’ Eliot wrote his poem at the onset of old age, writing in a somewhat wizen yet wistful voice as he reaches back through the years of his life to recapture  ’the spirit of wonder’ of his earliest childhood Christmases, when that ‘spirit of wonder’  .. ………. ‘filled whole days not (just) fleeting moments.’ Eliot desires once again ‘the glittering rapture, the amazement of the first remembered Christmas Tree.’  This sense of wonder Eliot tries to combine with the insights of his own  religious faith, a faith which was the result of a profound religious experience which  inspired  his first Christmas poem, ‘ The Journey of the Magi’ written  in 1927, the year he was baptised and confirmed.

 In  ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’, Eliot rejects the various attitudes towards Christmas, apart from one, the attitude of the child, borrowing from the Christian Gospel the distinction made between childishness and having a childlike sincerity, Our Lord indeed speaks of being like little children to gain the Kingdom of God.  Eliot uses the example of St Lucy, who though only a young virgin, becomes a martyr for her faith. In the poem Eliot yearns to be like the child ’for whom the candle (on the tree) is a  star’, like the stars that shone over the stable in Bethlehem and ’the gilded angel spreading its wings’ ’ is not just a decoration but literally an ’Angel’ ,like those who heralded the birth of Our Saviour.  So Eliot’s poem is not about raising evergreens but  taking hold (curating) of our own lives. He hopes that ‘ the reverence and gaiety’ of childhood might linger and may not be forgotten when we grow up, when Christmas is just boring habit, ‘fatigue and tedium’ - we have all felt like that no doubt as we rush around getting ready for Christmas. He speaks too of life’s   distractions and duties ‘that dull our candles so they no longer burn like stars’, and ‘clip the wings of our angels so they no longer sing on high but are silenced.’

 I suppose there is a danger of us all falling into this trap as we adults prepare for and celebrate Christmas, over indulging ourselves and for the most part losing sight of Christmas’s true meaning.  Eliot’s poem invites us to return to those Christmases we remember as children, remember the bits of tinsel, Chinese lanterns, lights that never worked, the careful unwrapping of those fragile baubles, the chocolate ornaments– the end result was always magical in the days when we sat by the glow of real firelight dreaming our dreams through Christmas to the New Year. Eliot reminds us that those precious memories ’fade’ replaced by what he calls ’the consciousness of failure in our worn lives’ and ‘an awareness of death. ’All things pass and finally for all of us there is he says that ’eightieth Christmas or ‘whichever is our Last’!  Our lives are full of beginnings and endings (That final ending Death), fresh starts and new directions, successes and failures, we need to, in a sense,  cultivate our own lives  rather than the trees, Christmas or otherwise;  to be happy our lives  need daily attention, and if we want to experience joy in our old age, then Eliot urges us to go on cultivating a sense of wonder in our lives, just as when we were indeed little children; go on looking for  a sense of enchantment and wonder in our lives -  to stare at Christmas trees until the lights shine out like stars and we hear the angels sing!