The English poet John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” has been, along with Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, part of my Christmas celebration each and every year. I often used his poem in worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. A few years ago while visiting Cornwall I made it a part of my “pilgrimage” to search out St. Enodoc Church, where Betjeman is buried. It was a beautiful coastal walk, then across some sand dunes to this amazing church. The church itself was buried in sand dunes for many many years before being rediscovered. It is an amazing story and well worth reading the following link. Today the church finds itself in the middle of a golf course – heaven indeed! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Enodoc%27s_Church,_Trebetherick
Betjeman’s humor and irony come through load and clear, as does his searching question “And is it true?” By way of explanation his mention of The Tortoise Stove – is of a slow wood burning stove which was first made in mid 1800s and the motto “slow but sure” was printed on them, often found in large manor homes and in small churches. This is a poem to read and enjoy, and to laugh a little, because we have been found guilty of much of what Betjeman writes. The poem appeared in print in 1954.
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 Hookers 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.
We are counting the days,
we are watching the clock,
we are wrapping the gifts,
checking our lists!
We are listening to carols
we are eager for Silent Night
and then at last
Joy to the World.
O Holy child we need you
more than ever.
Be born again and again,
be born in our hearts that we might
give birth and bear witness to this single Truth.
Hear our prayers made not always with words
but with the steady beat of our hearts,
the steady rhythm of our breathing.
O Come, O come, Emmanuel. Amen.