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 villagers can say
'The Church looks nice' on Christmas Day.
Provincial public houses blaze
And 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
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?
The 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 to-day in Bread and Wine.
observations: John Betjeman had a strong faith and a keen interest in the Church of England. He is also the poet of ordinary people, provincial suburban people of the middle classes – although quite posh himself and very much mixing with the gentry. (His wife Penelope turns up rather unexpectedly in this entry - Evelyn Waugh modelled his version of St Helena on her, apparently.) Betjeman's poems were comprehensible and accessible – especially compared to some of his contemporaries – but none the less meaningful for that. And the images and stories they tell do live on – the bombs on Slough, Joan Hunter Dunn, and the couple in the teashop:
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
And in this poem, ‘hideous tie so kindly meant’. (If you search on 'hideous ties' on Google images you get quite the collection.)
The big picture is of Fenwick’s department store in Newcastle in 1962, star lights above, window shopping below. It is from the Tyne & Wear Archive and Museum.
See more Xmas entries by clicking on the label below.