Christmas poetry collections are a rare breed, though a few do exist. But many classic poems no longer have copyrights and are easy to share without purchase. I could recommend many to a readership that is already word-wealthy, because we recognize that our mutual delight grows when we read together.
The grouping I include here are perfect for sharing, reading, and rereading at meals and devotions.
The first three poems are by George MacDonald who, as a Scottish minister and family man, wrote many for his own children, but most especially for celebrating Christ at Christmas. As an adult, his daughter Louisa wrote about their family’s Christmas traditions and described how the family busily decorated the tree, cooked, and made dresses on Christmas Eve while their father stuck, “Christmas pictures on the nursery walls to delight the little ones.”
She writes, “On Christmas Day, thirteen poor children with clean frocks and bright faces” were welcomed for the afternoon, and MacDonald delighted them by telling the story of the Ugly Duckling. All the children were given toys or books, fed cakes and buns, and then MacDonald “told them the true story of the day—about the good Christ-child.”
After these guests departed with half an orange each, the family lit the tree and the plum pudding, and the children then “gambled for the candlesticks, nuts, figs, and oranges” before more cakes were enjoyed. It is a beautiful and generous picture of her father and family.
A Christmas Carol
Babe Jesus lay in Mary’s lap,
The sun shone in his hair;
And this was how she saw, mayhap,
The crown already there.
For she sang: ‘Sleep on, my little king;
Bad Herod dares not come;
Before thee sleeping, holy thing,
The wild winds would be dumb.’
‘I kiss thy hands, I kiss thy feet,
My child, so long desired;
Thy hands will never be soiled, my sweet;
Thy feet will never be tired.’
‘For thou art the king of men, my son;
Thy crown I see it plain!
And men shall worship thee, every one,
And cry, Glory! Amen!’
Babe Jesus he opened his eyes wide-
At Mary looked her lord.
Mother Mary stinted her song and sighed;
Babe Jesus said never a word.
Composer Eric Pazdiora set this poem in a simple Christmas hymn for his Chicago church a number of years ago. You can listen to the small choir perform it here: https://www.ericpazdziora.com/portfolio/the-saviors-carol-george-macdonald/
The Christmas Child
“Little one, who straight hast come
Down the heavenly stair,
Tell us all about your home,
And the father there.”
“He is such a one as I,
Like as like can be.
Do his will, and, by and by,
Home and him you’ll see.”
A Christmas Prayer
Loving looks the large-eyed cow,
Loving stares the long-eared ass
At Heaven’s glory in the grass!
Child, with added human birth
Come to bring the child of earth
Glad repentance, tearful mirth,
And a seat beside the hearth
At the Father’s knee—
Make us peaceful as thy cow;
Make us patient as thine ass;
Make us quiet as thou art now;
Make us strong as thou wilt be.
Make us always know and see
We are his as well as thou.
C. S. Lewis
The next rare poem is by C.S. Lewis. Other than his nod to Father Christmas in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis left no literary contribution to the literature of Christmas. His odd comments in diary or essay often reflect on the over-commercialization of the once holy-day, calling it, “the modern orgy of buying, giving, and receiving gifts and overindulging in food and drink.”
Yet he did write at length about the incarnation as the grand miracle all else depends on, saying it: “Digs beneath the surface, works through the rest of our knowledge by unexpected channels, harmonizes best with our deepest apprehensions and our ‘second thoughts’, and in union with these undermines our superficial opinions.”
The incarnation is the Grand Miracle and one we can lose sight of in the hubbub that fills our Christmas season. So it is with a light heart and great humor that Lewis writes of his similarity to the animals that surrounded Christ at his birth.
Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Savior where I looked for hay;
So may my beast like folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baaing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!
The fifth poem is one of many spiritual poems written by Anne Brontë in her teens. With their schooling and working posts, Christmas was a time where the Brontë siblings could reunite for several weeks in their lifelong home, the parsonage Haworth. The holiday was celebrated quietly and contentedly amid the traditional hum of Yorkshire festivities. Anne’s novel Agnes Grey (1847), a semi-autobiographical work about her time as governess at Thorp Green Hall, describes her simple trip back home for Christmas:
“I spare my readers the account of my delight on coming home, happiness while there—enjoying a brief space of rest and liberty in that dear, familiar place, among the loving and the loved—and my sorrow on being obliged to bid them, once more, a long adieu.”
Music on Christmas Morning
Music I love—but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine -
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes borne.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them I celebrate His birth—
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good-will to men, and peace on earth,
To us a Saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed,
And Satan’s self must now confess
That Christ has earned a right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.
Finally, I leave you with John Milton’s Christmas hymn written in 1629 when he was only twenty-one. Yes, it retains spelling and word patterns from Middle English along with formal meter, but Milton beautifully weaves the nativity with the incarnation in the most sacred diction, a reminder of the especial awe we share at the miracle of our salvation.
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Compos’d 1629
This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherwith he wont at Heav’ns high Councel-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksom House of mortal Clay.
Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no vers, no hymn, or solemn strein,
To welcom him to this his new abode,
Now while the Heav’n by the Suns team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
See how from far upon the Eastern rode
The Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first, thy Lord to greet,
And joyn thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow’d fire.
Full hymn link here: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/text.shtml
She is the author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion (2017) and writes regularly at her blog Thy Lyre and at The Imaginative Conservative.