December into May: Two Christmas Poems

The weather in Boston is positively balmy–sunny and 45 degrees. This, of course, reminds me of a poem:

A Christmas Caroll, sung to the King
in the Presence at White-Hall

by Robert Herrick

What sweeter musick can we bring,
Then a Caroll, for to sing
The Birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the Voice! Awake the String!

I. Dark and dull night, flie hence away,
And give the honour to this Day,
That sees December turn’d to May.

2. If we may ask the reason, say;
The why, and wherefore all things here
Seem like the Spring-time of the yeere?

3. Why do’s the chilling Winters morne
Smile, like a field beset with corne?
Or smell, like to a Meade new-shorne,
Thus, on the sudden? 4. Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be :
‘Tis He is borne, whose quickning Birth
Gives life and luster, publike mirth,
To Heaven, and the under-Earth.

We see Him come, and know him ours,
Who, with His Sun-shine, and His showers,
Turnes all the patient ground to flowers.

I. The Darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we finde a roome
To welcome Him.

2. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart,

Which we will give Him ; and bequeath
This Hollie, and this Ivie Wreath,
To do Him honour, who’s our King,
And Lord of all this Revelling.
Excerpted from:
Herrick, Robert. The Poems of Robert Herrick.
London: Oxford University Press, 1933, p.385-386.

At the risk of having to permanently surrender my music snob credentials, I confess to having fallen in love with this poem in John Rutter’s treacly setting, which you can hear here. It took me several rehearsals to be able to make it through the bit about the winter’s morn smiling and smelling like a meadow without choking up a little. In part, this is because I am deep-down quite pagan, and always tempted to love the creation more than the Creator, and in part it was because I once saw November turned to March, on the occasion of a particularly joy-filled birth.

When my daughter Louisa was born in late November of 1998, Philadelphia had nearly a week of crazy-warm temperatures. The day she was born, it was 70 degrees. When we brought her home from the hospital, the forsythia outside our front door, tricked by the false spring, was in full golden bloom. If you knew my Lulu, this would make perfect sense–she has always been an astonishingly joyful child, nourished by rich springs of delight (which, by the way, are also a constant source of puzzled wonder to her melancholic Scandinavian mama). Of course the world smiled in the place where she landed.

It seems to me that this, simply, is the miracle Christmas requires us to believe in–that the events on this earth are intimately known and influenced by the One who made the earth. That the weather down here matters, that matter matters to the One who breathes His Spirit into it in a thousand ways. We are asked to believe that this is true not just in the runaway imagination of poets, but in material, palpable reality. The virgin birth, a new star, nights as bright as day–if we believe these things, then we will also find it possible to believe that we, each of us, matter to our Creator. We will find it possible that he can influence the unpredictable weather of the human heart, a possibility beautifully envisioned by one of my favorite hymn texts by John Newton (also the author of the text ‘Amazing Grace’).

How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours
When Jesus I no longer I see
Sweet prospects, sweet birds and sweet flow’rs
Have all lost their sweetness to me;
The midsummer sun shines but dim
The fields strive in vain to look gay;
But when I am happy in Him
December’s as pleasant as May.

His name yields the richest perfume,
And sweeter than music his voice.
His presence disperses my gloom.
And makes all within me rejoice.
I should, were he always thus nigh
Have nothing to wish or to fear;
No mortal so happy as I,
My summer would last all the year.

Content with beholding his face,
My all to his pleasure resigned,
No changes of season or place
Would make any change in my mind.
While blessed with a sense of his love,
A palace a toy would appear;
And prisons would palaces prove,
If Jesus would dwell with me there.

Dear Lord, if indeed I am thine.
If thou art my sun and my song,
Say, why do I languish and pine,
And why are my winters so long?
O drive these dark clouds from my sky,
Thy soul-cheering presence restore;
Or take me to thee upon high,
Where winter and clouds are no more.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

10 comments for “December into May: Two Christmas Poems

  1. Kristine Haglund Harris
    December 24, 2005 at 12:09 pm

    Before anyone feels terribly offended by my quelling about my daughter, let me say that I’m not actually sure that her birth was important enough to warrant divine intervention in Philadelphia’s weather, and I could accept a more naturalistic explanation for that phenomenon! Still, I think it illustrates the general lesson, and I think it’s important to find it *possible* to believe that God might have wanted to decorate the forsythia for Lulu’s homecoming. Still, I recognize the danger of thinking that events are regularly orchestrated for my (or anyone’s) particular benefit–surely every child’s birth deserves miraculous recognition, and the logic of my joy in the quirky weather can become something monstrous, if taken to its extreme. But it’s Christmas, and I got a D in logic, so please read charitably!

  2. D. Fletcher
    December 24, 2005 at 12:16 pm

    Kristine! SO happy so read your posts, as always. Have a wonderful Christmas!

  3. December 24, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    I’ve heard prophets testify of far slighter justifications for divine intervention, Kristine–not that the birth of a child is at all a slight event! As far as I’m concerned, you and Lulu can properly consider that one Philadelphia November an early Christmas miracle. Thanks for this gorgeous post.

  4. Ann
    December 24, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    This post, as your posts always do, brings me hope. Merry Christmas, Kristine, and thank you.

  5. Kaimi Wenger
    December 24, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for this, Kris. Merry Christmas, to you and yours.

  6. Ben H
    December 24, 2005 at 8:07 pm

    That’s what is so dizzying, that alongside monstrosity, there are miracles! Thank you, Kristine.

  7. TA
    December 24, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    Christmas Poem

    when were young
    we sterilized formula
    and were very careful
    about dangerous germs—
    in the hospital people could only
    see the babies through GLASS

    isn’t it interesting that men
    who were busy all day
    delivering ewes
    returning wayward lambs
    to their mothers
    who petted sheep dogs and
    led their flocks into pastures
    whose simple voices lost sheep
    recognized and trusted
    because of their
    loving kindness
    and caring protection-

    isn’t it interesting that these
    dirty, dusty, weary men should
    receive the most terrifyingly
    beautiful invitation
    ever given
    by the Lord God Almighty Himself
    to be the FIRST to see His Son
    our Savior
    born the same day—
    the bible says they “made haste�

    God knew they didn’t have time
    to wash their hands and maybe
    they even got to hold Him!

    -Unknown, 2002

  8. Mark B.
    December 24, 2005 at 11:56 pm

    Nice post, Kristine. I’m reminded of my daughter’s birth 21 Decembers past, when I walked the mile from Long Island College Hospital to our home in shirtsleeves–truly another December turned May.

    I’ll be charitable, because, doggonit, people, including me, like you. But I am reminded of Hotspur’s tweaking (too gentle a word for what he did, eh?) of Glendower, when the Welshman boasted that

    at my nativity
    The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
    Of burning cressets; and at my birth
    The frame and huge foundation of the earth
    Shaked like a coward.

    Why, so it would have done at the same season, if
    your mother’s cat had but kittened, though yourself
    had never been born.

    I say the earth did shake when I was born.

    And I say the earth was not of my mind,
    If you suppose as fearing you it shook.

    The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.

    O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire,
    And not in fear of your nativity.
    Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
    In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
    Is with a kind of colic pinch’d and vex’d
    By the imprisoning of unruly wind
    Within her womb; which, for enlargement striving,
    Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
    Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth
    Our grandam earth, having this distemperature,
    In passion shook.

    Cousin, of many men
    I do not bear these crossings. Give me leave
    To tell you once again that at my birth
    The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
    The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
    Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
    These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
    And all the courses of my life do show
    I am not in the roll of common men.
    Where is he living, clipp’d in with the sea
    That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
    Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?
    And bring him out that is but woman’s son
    Can trace me in the tedious ways of art
    And hold me pace in deep experiments.

    I think there’s no man speaks better Welsh.
    I’ll to dinner.

    (Henry IV, Part I, III, i)

    The “miracles” at Glendower’s birth may have been coincidence, but surely those at your daughter’s, Kristine.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  9. Adam Greenwood
    December 26, 2005 at 9:42 am


  10. Mark B.
    December 26, 2005 at 11:38 am

    Oops. Another “Words of One Syllable” department from The New Yorker.

    In the penultimate line of my comment, insert “not” after “surely.”

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