'All sang alleluia': Christmas poems from round Europe

Article published on Dec. 12, 2012
community published
Article published on Dec. 12, 2012
Is it the best day of the year, or materialist mayhem? Have you already decked the hall with boughs of holly, or are you secretly waiting for it all to be over?
A selection of favourite Christmas poems picked by Babelians is by turns joyful, world-weary and quietly optimistic

Germany: Knecht Rupprecht, Theodore Storm

The words “he knows if you’ve been naughty, he knows if you’ve been good” take on a sinister aspect for children Christmassing in Germany. Germany’s favourite Christmas poem is the tale of Santa’s not so little helper Knecht Rupprecht, sometimes described as the German equivalent of England’s Robin Goodfellow. According to Storm’s poem, Rupprecht carries a sack of apples, nuts and almonds for pious children, but is reminded by saint Nicolas: “Do you also have the rod with you?” Ever prepared, Rupprecht does indeed have the rod with him, “but only for the bad children/ whom it meets rightly, upon their part”. Eek!

France: Mon beau sapin ('My beautiful fir tree')

However, as long as you've been minding your Ps and Qs, Germany seems to have dibs on the picture perfect Christmas. The “most beautiful poem in the world” recommended by one French Babelian is actually a translation of the famous German song, ‘Oh Tannenbaum’. The ode to the ‘roi des forêt’ (king of the forest) is a celebration of greenery, light and love in the bleak midwinter.

Spain: Navidad en el Hudson, Federico García Lorca

In contrast, Lorca’s famous ‘Christmas on the Hudson’ offers a bleak glimpse of an alienated, almost dystopian world, where the ‘world/ is alone in the sky’. The rejoicing of Christmas is reduced to empty words from the mouths of those past celebration:

'the slashed sailor

sang to the bear of water that would embrace his body

and all sang alleluia,

alleluia. Deserted sky.

It's the same, the same! Alleluia.'

Italy: Natale, Giuseppe Ungaretti

On first glance, Ungaretti’s ‘Christmas’ seems equally world-weary. Despite being written almost a hundred years ago, the narrator’s lament that ‘I don’t have the will / to dive / into a tangle / of streets’ seems startlingly familiar to those of us disturbed by the increasing consumerism of Christmas and the frenzy of present shopping. Ungaretti however offers an appealing alternative, to ‘stay / with the four / somersaults / of smoke / from the hearth.’

Great Britain: Mrs Scrooge, Carol Ann Duffy

Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy might just have read Ungaretti’s ’Natale’ before composing her response to the British classic novel ‘A Christmas Carol’. What Dickens once dismissed as lack of seasonal cheer, Duffy rewrites as a happier, healthier way to live. The poem is both a sharp indictment of consumerism (at Christmas and all year round) and a hopeful affirmation of people power, of love and of laughter.