The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

Dec 22, 2017

What would it be like if, at this time of the year, instead of sending each other greeting cards, we were to send each other poems?

In the early 20th century the publisher Faber and Gwyer decided to do exactly that -  commissioning a series of poems from famous writers, to send out in lieu of a Christmas Card.  These poems, the Ariel Poems as they became known, each in its own illustrated pamphlet, numbered thirty-eight in total, appearing from 1927 to 1931.  A generation later, in 1954 a further series of eight poems was released by Faber and Faber.  Each pamphlet is a gem.   

One of the most famous contributors to both collections was a poetry editor at Faber in the 1920s named T. S. Eliot (he of CATS fame).  You may well have heard or read Eliot’s first, and best-known, Arial poem – The Journey of the Magi.  But I want to commend to you the last of the poems he contributed to this series, The Cultivation of Christmas Trees, written in 1954.

In this poem, Eliot writes as a seventy-year-old.  He’s an old man, he’s experienced the good and the bad of life.  He’s no fool.  Yet out of this he draws not cynicism, but a longing for his readers to recapture the sense of wonder we had as children.  The wonder we experienced in seeing our first Christmas tree.

 
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees – T.S. Eliot, 1954

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

For many of us, I reckon, the holiday season is filled with a terrible tangle of emotions, of birth and death, fear and hope.  My wish for you is that somewhere in these days you may know again that sense of wonder, as a small child, and that you may know great joy.