'Christmas' by Sir John Betjeman C.B.E.
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.
Summary of 'Christmas' by John Betjeman
The first verses are about the preparations for Christmas both in and out of the church. The stove is lit to warm the church, the greenery is being collected to decorate the aisles and the altar, decorations are being put up, and people are leaving work for the Christmas holiday.
The poem then moves forward to Christmas morning when gifts are being given and the church bells are calling people to morning service. In the sixth verse the true meaning of Christmas is questioned.
The last two verses provide no clear answer to the question And is it true; but the words this single Truth, with the capitalised letter T, suggest that the voice in the poem believes that the Bible stories about the birth and life of Christ are true; that the frivolous activities surrounding Christmas Day, and family love, fade into insignificance compared with Christ's sacrifice and the sacrament of Communion offered at Mass on Christmas Day morning.
The reader is left with a feeling of awe at the enormity of what believers experience at the Christmas Day church service when taking the proffered bread and wine.
Explanation of Some References and Allusions in the Poem
The first verse is located in a church
Line 1 - waiting Advent - Advent is the twenty-four days in December leading up to Christmas Day when the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour who gave his life on Earth for the benefit of humankind, is celebrated. The bells of the church ring out in anticipation of the event.
Line 2 - Tortoise stove - The Tortoise stove, developed by Charles Portway, dates back to 1830. The stoves were popular because they took a long time to burn one filling, extracting the maximum amount of heat from the fuel. Each was produced with the motto ‘Slow but sure’ displayed with the trademark. They were popular for heating cold and draughty church buildings.
Line 6 - Crimson Lake and Hookers Green are watercolour paint colours. The reference is an allusion to the colours that can be seen in the stained glass windows of churches. Red and green are also traditionally associated with Christmas.
The second verse refers to the greenery used to decorate village churches.
The third verse re-locates the poem to a town and tells the reader what the voice in the poem,' I', sees around him - the lights, the paper decorations, the red brick Town Hall (again an allusion to a colour associated with Christmas), and the bunting. A cheerful, celebratory scene.
The fourth verse describes London on Christmas Eve - the voice describes the many church spires, the silver decorations, people leaving the City to attend church, 'pigeon-haunted classic towers'.
By the end of the fourth verse, the poem has established that preparations for the celebration of Christmas are ubiquitous - in villages, towns and in England's capital city.
Verse five moves the poem forward to Christmas morning. There is a contrast in this verse between different social classes - 'oafish louts' and the 'shining ones' ie. the wealthy people who are able to afford to stay at The Dorchester, a luxury London hotel. Whatever their status, all people are being called to early-morning church services by the bells that are ringing out.
The reference to girls 'in slacks' locates the poem in time. At the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 it became acceptable for British women to wear trousers, referred to as slacks, principally for heavy factory and land work previously undertaken by men who had now gone to war.
Refers to the Christmas Story - the Creator's Son sent to Earth and born in a stable. A story depicted in stained glass church windows.
John Betjeman was a Christian and a practising member of the Anglian church, serving for some time as a churchwarden. However, it is documented that he had a nagging uncertainty about the truth of what underlines Church doctrine. This uncertainty is reflected in the question in this stanza and it is repeated in the first line of the seventh stanza.
Stanzas 7 and 8
The two last verses are linked by a comma because a theme is continued from verse 7 to verse 8. What Betjeman is saying is that if the Christmas Story is true then the silly and shoddy gifts, family love, carols and bells are insignificant compared with the miraculous Truth that God came to Earth in Bethlehem and is still alive when Mass is celebrated with the consecrated bread and wine that are transformed by miracle into His blood and His flesh.
Who Was John Betjeman?
John Betjeman was an English poet who achieved the unusual status of being a very popular author as well as a writer praised by literary critics and intellectuals. Born to a wealthy silver maker of Dutch descent, Betjeman was sent to preparatory school where he studied under T. S. Eliot. He later studied at Oxford University with C. S. Lewis.
Betjeman wrote in a formal style but wrote generally light verse (that is, verse that is whimsical, humorous, and brief). However, he used this writing style as a vehicle to criticize and satirize the society in which he lived, which he viewed as being superficial. He also wrote in praise of architecture (he was passionate about Victorian style) and touched on public issues in a light-handed way.
Betjeman's poem 'Christmas' discusses the British traditions of Advent and Christmas and makes certain social and religious inquiries. Let's take a look at the full poem now.
Betjeman is also known as the man who saved London's St Pancras train station. There is a statue dedicated to his achievement outside the champagne bar on the upper floor.
John Betjeman's Awards and Honours
- 1960 Queen's Medal for Poetry
- 1960 Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
- 1968 Companion of Literature, the Royal Society of Literature
- 1969 Knight Bachelor
- 1972 Poet Laureate
- 1973 Honorary Member, the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- 2011 Honoured by the University of Oxford, his alma mater, as one of its 100 most distinguished members from ten centuries.
References and Further Reading
- John Betjeman | Poetry Foundation
John Betjeman, poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984, was known by many as a poet whose writing evoked a sense of nostalgia.
- John Betjeman's Poem 'Christmas' | Figures of Speech
John Betjeman's poem 'Christmas': the greatest Christmas poem – charming, cheerful and profound.
- Rediscover the Meaning of Christmas With Sir John Betjeman | Great British Life
John Betjeman was one of the best known poets, writers and broadcasters of the 20th century.
- John Betjeman | Wikipedia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: what is the setting of the poem "Christmas" by John Betjemen?
Answer: There is not a single setting for "Christmas." He starts the poem by referring to the' Manor House,' a type of property is usually situated in the countryside or a village. He then refers to comments made by villagers about the church decorations. In the following stanza, he refers to 'provincial public houses,' which are located throughout towns in the United Kingdom. The fourth and fifth stanzas describe scenes in London - the shops and the Dorchester Hotel. The overall impression that is created by the poem is of Christmas preparations taking place throughout the land: he starts the poem describing rural locations, moving on to towns in the provinces (i.e., outside London), and then describes what is happening in London.
Question: What is the meaning of the phrase pigeon "...haunted classic towers..." in the poem ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman?
Answer: The City of London has many buildings with classic architecture - some Victorian and some, older, church buildings. Pigeons perch on, and sometimes nest in, the towers of these buildings.
© 2017 Glen Rix