Poetry for Christmas

Christmas and the New Year have served as inspiration for some wonderful poetry capturing the mixture of feelings that come with this time, whether warm memories of childhood and festive family gatherings, the bleakness and beauty of midwinter, or the hopeful turning of a blank page in the diary ready for the year ahead.

Our selection starts with T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. The poem takes the familiar nativity story, the wise men’s journey to Bethlehem, and reawakens it into something raw and powerful. As the poem winds its way haltingly towards its anticipated conclusion, we are left with both hope and disappointment: the journey is certainly transformative for the travellers, but is its purpose fulfilled, or does the meaning of the birth they come to witness remain elusive rather than revelatory?

To accompany the text, two beautiful and quite different readings of the poem are available here:
Read by T. S. Eliot
Read by Hugh Laurie

We hope you enjoy today’s poems at a moment of reflection amidst the bustle of the holidays. As the year draws to a close, we want to thank everyone who has been involved in supporting the Good Death Project in 2022.

The Journey of the Magi, by T. S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

  1. December, by Susan Spear
  2. Snow, by Louis MacNeice
  3. Burning the Old Year, by Naomi Shihab Nye
  4. Winter Stars, by Sarah Teasdale