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John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Mystic's Christmas"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1961.

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

Introduction and Text of "The Mystic's Christmas"

John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Mystic's Christmas" features 12 quatrains; each quatrain consists of two riming couplets. The poem dramatizes the true significance of the Christmas celebration through dialogue between robustly rejoicing monks and a meditative brother monk.

(Please note: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Mystic's Christmas

“All hail!” the bells of Christmas rang,
“All hail!” the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.

“Why sitt’st thou thus?” his brethren cried,
“It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

“Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God’s creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

“Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look.”
The gray monk answered, “Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord’s birthday.

“Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

“The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe’er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

“They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

“But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

“I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

“The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

“Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!”

Reading of "The Mystic's Christmas"

Commentary on "The Mystic's Christmas"

Through a dialogue between boisterously rejoicing monks and a more contemplative brother monk, John Greenleaf Whittier’s "The Mystic’s Christmas" imparts in dramatic form the original majesty and spiritual importance of the Christmas celebration.

First Movement: Silence Amid Merriment

"All hail!" the bells of Christmas rang,
"All hail!" the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.

The narrator sets the scene by announcing that the Christmas bells are ringing, and the monks are singing and making cheerful banter. It is for them a happy time of year; they enjoy the festivities and celebrations involved in marking the birth of Jesus the Christ.

Contrasting the younger monks gaiety and merriment, an older monk sits in meditative silence. He is a brother of true piety, and his countenance reveals "God's sweet peace."

Second Movement: The Taunting Impetuousness of Youth

"Why sitt’st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

"Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God’s creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray monk answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord’s birthday.

Uncomprehending the older monk's silence, the younger brothers accost them, asking why he is just sitting there when it is celebration time.

They then describe the festive atmosphere with Christmas lights glowing, beautiful lilies, symbolic of the Christ, that are decorating the halls, while bells are ringing joyfully, and outside, children are singing.

Then they command the elder monk to get up and make merry with them. They take his stillness and quietude for a rebuke of their noisy "gladness." They seem not to comprehend his meditative position.

The impetuousness of youth often feels that it must taunt its elders into behavioral submission, even alas! in a monastery.

Third Movement: The Better Benefactor

"Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

"The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe’er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

"They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;

The elder monk's reply demonstrates that he is, in fact, the better benefactor of the grace-giving nativity whose season is in celebration.

With kindness, he asserts that they may celebrate as they wish, that all the "heathen Yule fires," "refectory feasts," and "mystery-plays" are acceptable ways to mark the birth of the Christ.

The elder monk has no word of denigration for these customs, for even the smallest and most tentative bit of faith is pleasing to the Lord, Who recognizes that His children must behave according to their evolutionary progress.

Thus, the elder monk tells them that God accepts any celebration and recognition from His children.

Fourth Movement: As Wisdom Prevails

As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

"But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

"I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,

The older monk, because of experience that comes with age, comprehends truths that the younger men have not yet learned. Although he used to see things the same way they do, he now understands, owing to his discipline and training, the true nature of Christ Consciousness.

This older, more experienced brother has learned that true Christ Consciousness lives within, that is, in his own soul, and not in the outward decorations and celebratory aspects of Christmas.

The elder monk knows that God's grace does not reside in any form, nor within the confines of "time and space." He instructs the young monks that it is within one's own soul that one must listen to the songs of Angels and sense the lilies that grow within the soul.

He tells them that all things on the physical, "outward," level soon vanish into nothingness, after the soul comes to realize itself.

Then there is nothing but praise and that praise fills the soul each day, not just when the calendar signals a date for a holiday. But then the old monk also tells them to continue their merrymaking as long as it honestly reminds them of the Christ.

Fifth Movement: True Purposes

But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!"

The monk reveals not only the true significance of Christmas celebration but also the true purpose of monastic life: "The outward symbols disappear / From him whose inward sight is clear." This monk realizes that whether he celebrates outwardly or not, he is united with the Divine.

The older brother fills all of his days with praise for the Christ, making one day of celebration fairly redundant, even small, by comparison. Again, he asserts that they must, "Keep while you need it, brothers mine, / With honest seal your Christmas sign."

But he adds an important warning, "But judge not him who every morn / Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!" This elder monk realizes the Christ inwardly every day, not just at the calendar's call to celebrate.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes