Christmas Eve! Five
hundred poets waited, pen
poised above paper,
for the poem to arrive,
bells ringing. It was because
the chimney was too small,
because they had ceased
to believe, the poem passed them
by on its way out
into oblivion, leaving
the doorstep bare
of all but the sky-rhyming
child to whom later
on they would teach prose.
“Nativity” from Mass for Hard Times (1992) by R.S. Thomas
In recent years I’ve been trying to read something related to Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas (in addition to the usual biblical texts). Unfortunately, while Advent inspires many writers, the results of their labors are often less than inspiring. Christmas stories and poems are frequently sentimental (or unduly bleak in an attempt to avoid sentimentality), didactic, or just plain boring. Part of the issue (I think) is that the Christmas story feels familiar even when it’s not; elements of it have been cooked into our culture and it has been twisted and used for all sorts of ends. So, in the past couple years as I’ve searched for something to read, part of what I look for are texts that approach the story at an angle and make it a little strange again. This is an idiosyncratic, limited list, but if like me you’re looking for one or two things to read this Advent season to try and see Christmas a little more clearly, maybe it can be of use.
All pieces that will stick with you for days but can be read in about the time it takes to drink a mug of cocoa (for a couple of them, a very large mug). Where I can, I’ve linked to a copy of the text where it can be read online.
- The Wicked Fairy at the Manger – U. A. Fanthorpe (the Christmas poems she wrote each year are collected in one volume)
- Advent and Christmas – Frederick Buechner
- The Journey of the Magi – T. S. Eliot
- Advent Calendar – Rowan Williams
- Oration 38 – Gregory of Nazianzus
- The Coming – R. S. Thomas
- Annunciation, Nativity – John Donne
- Bonhoeffer’s Advent letters and poems in Letters and Papers from Prison (the table of contents in most editions is arranged chronologically, so you can pick them out that way – the letter/essay “After Ten Years” is a good place to start, and it is the first text in the collection. After reading it you may just want to keep going and read the entire volume, which I recommend)
These are works that may require multiple cups of cocoa (paired with some ginger chocolate cookies – and after all the cocoa and cookies, maybe some brisk walks to think them over) but can be comfortably read over the four weeks of Advent.
- For the Time Being – W. H. Auden (I read this for the first time last year and am re-reading it this year. If you’re wondering if it might be your cup of tea, Alan Jacobs’ introduction to the critical edition he edited is here).
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis (I plan on writing a post on reading this book during Advent later in December so … stay tuned?)
- Silas Marner – George Eliot (I’ll admit this seems like the oddest choice, but I re-read it earlier this year and was reminded how much I enjoy Eliot’s little book. Silas Marner is a thoroughly secular 19th century fairy tale but it is the story of a poor child born in questionable circumstances whose unexpected arrival in the depths of winter transforms a life … so, perhaps it takes less interpretive arm-twisting than you might think to connect it with Advent)
Biola University has an online Advent calendar which pairs art with short devotionals, and is worth checking out if you are looking for daily readings.