IT is Christmas tree purchase time once again-unless that is you are one of those wise people who has nurtured one from a previous year which you can continue to use, or unless you are one of those who for a variety of reasons- economical. practical, ecological- prefer not to buy.
It was fitting, then, to come across the following Eliot poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in his “Collected Poems”. It cannot be claimed it is one of his best poems, and following, as it does in the Ariel series, the wonderful “Marina” which is, it is all too easy to overlook.
Yet I suggest what Eliot discusses is worth pursuing.
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees There are several attitudes towards Christmas Some of which we may disregard: The social, the torpid, the patently commercial, The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight), And the childish-which is not that of the child For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree Is not only decoration, but an angel, The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: Let him continue in the spirit of wonder At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext; So that the glittering rapture, the amazement Of the first remembered Christmas Tree, So that the surprises, delight in new possessions (Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell), The expectation of the goose or turkey And the expected awe on its appearance, So that the reverence and the gaiety May not be forgotten in later experience, In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium, The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure, Or in the piety of the convert Which may be tainted with a self-conceit Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children (And here I remember also with gratitude St Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire): So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas (By eightieth meaning whichever is the last) The accumulated memories of annual emotion May be concentrated into a great joy Which shall also be a great fear, as on the occasion When fear came upon every soul: Because the beginning shall remind us of the end And the first coming of the second coming.
It is not great poetry. It is rhythmically flat, no more than elegantly expressed rational discourse. As in the elderly Wordsworth, Eliot when he loses poetic force, without the driving impulsion of emotion creating and guiding the rhythm, the verse sounds prosaic.
That said, the poem has its interest. It appears to be Eliot’s last, written a few months before his death. It shows the unromantic Eliot holding on to that very Romantic emphasis on wonder that that great movement added to our understanding.
The child wonders at the Christmas tree; Let him continue in the spirit of wonder.
Just as Wordsworth holds on to the wonder of the rainbow in the sky and prays to maintain that wonder :
So be it when I shall grow old Or let me die.
so Eliot sees the importance of childhood wonder as informing our later life up to death
In Eliot’s poem the wonder then becomes associated, for the soul nearing death, with fear: the fear here referring us back to the fear felt by the shepherds visited by the angels (“Fear not: for behold, I bring tidings of great joy” )
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion When fear came upon every soul.
The fear of death, of the judgement death brings on a life approaching it, is mitigated by the accumulated wonder and gratitude developed through a lifetime of the celebration of God’s great gift, as remembered every Christmas.
Let us then, whatever our age, as we look at our Christmas tree and value the Christmas stories, seek sustenance from and nurture within us that sense of accumulated wonder.