Thursday, December 9, 2010

5 days old

(This is an old post from 2004 on my other blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. It's seasonally relevant now and this is still my favourite Christmas poem, so I thought it might be worth revisiting).

My favourite Christmas poem isn't really a Christmas poem per se, although it does use Christmas themes and seems to me to encapsulate that nebulous and so-often-lampooned concept, "the spirit of Christmas".

I'm not talking about gifts, although the exchange of gifts is, to me, more than a merely commercial exercise, it's a complex social exchange that can, at its best, represent deep affection and generosity. I'm not talking about Santa, reindeer, Christmas trees, decorations, Myer Christmas windows or hugely light-bedecked suburban houses, although all of those things are minor pleasures of the season to me (remnants of a happy childhood, I suspect). I'm not talking about Christmas carols, much as I do enjoy belting them out or crooning them as seasonal lullabies. I'm not talking about friends and family, although seeing them is a side benefit of our societal obligation to engage with relationships again at year's end. I'm not even talking about food, much as I loooove Christmas fare.

To me, Christmas is about birth, and beginnings, and renewal, and the wonder of newborn life. Religious elements aside, the story of the nativity has always moved me. The labouring mother, probably afraid, suffering, in a strange place. The no-doubt-anxious father, hovering around, maybe running off to get clean cloths as the birth approaches. The baby boy, born in blood and tears and happiness as all babies are, time without end. And then the explosion of joy at this beginning - angels in the sky, a beacon star, kneeling shepherds and later, grave Magi bringing royal gifts. Gold for a King, Frankincense for a Deity, and Myrhh for the dying at the end. A very deep foreshadowing for such a tiny life, and capturing that mixed sense of wonder and exultation and love and fear and bittersweetness that every parent feels - well, that I felt - when they look at their newborn child, and think "She'll grow. She'll change. She'll hurt." To me this is what Christmas is - the joy, the pain, the fear, the expectation, the utter humanity of birh - the everyday miracle.

That's why I like this poem, by Australian Francis Webb, even though it's only partly "about" Christmas, and partly about a birth of his own (his son's).

Five Days Old by Francis Webb (1961)

Christmas is in the air.
You are given into my hands
Out of quietest, loneliest lands.
My trembling is all my prayer.
To blown straw was given
All the fullness of Heaven.

The tiny, not the immense
Will teach our groping eyes
So the absorbed skies
Bleed stars of innocence
So cloud-voice in war and trouble
Is at last Christ in the stable.

Now wonderingly engrossed
In your fearless delicacies,
I am launched upon sacred seas,
Humbly and utterly lost
In the mystery of creation
Bells, bells of ocean.

For the snowflake and face of love
Windfall and word of truth,
Honour close to death.
O eternal truthfulness, Dove,
Tell me what I hold -
Myrhh? Frankincense? Gold?

If this is man, then the danger
And fear are as lights of the inn,
Faint and remote as sin
Out here by the manger
In the sleeping, weeping weather
We shall all kneel down together.

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