The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
I’ve always liked John Betjeman’s poetry. The older I get, the more I feel an affinity with his rather curmudgeonly attitude to progress – most famously expressed in his wish for friendly bombs to fall on Slough – although I wonder what he might have made of the Internet, the source of my own livelihood. Somehow, I don’t think he’d approve.
But Christmas is a more gentle, more uplifting poem, in which Betjeman seemingly tuts over “girls in slacks” and “oafish lads” in a manner closer to that of a kindly uncle than a disapproving patriarch. And, unlike Thomas Hardy who, in The Oxen, starts from a position of disbelief but allows himself to hope for truth, Betjeman here affirms his faith in the central tenets of Christianity while also admitting to his doubt. “Is it true?” he asks. Well, maybe. But you have to admit that if it is, he has a point.