Ho, Ho, Hmmmmm

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


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Why has Christmas eaten all the other fall and winter holidays? I feel as though we’re disconnected from the particular joys other holidays have to offer, specifically the non-costume, reflection-on-mortality aspect of Halloween, and its month-later anodyne, Thanksgiving, which celebrates all the hard work of the harvest and begins the convivial atmosphere that helps us all get through the long dark nights of the winter. How can poetry help us get back to appreciating our other holidays for what they are?
— Dr. Sunshine


From what I understand, Christmas dominates the winter holidays because it boosts our economy. In the 1930s, in the hope that it would pull us out of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving was even moved up from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November so that people would have more time for Christmas shopping. I guess that’s the way it goes in our consumer economy. We forget the joys of Halloween candy as we suck on candy canes, we forget the Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie as we eat more turkey and pumpkin pie at Christmas dinner while wearing the new sneakers we got that morning. So let’s read poetry to better appreciate the other holidays — you know the All-Stars:  Poe, Whittier, Longfellow, or perhaps James Schuyler:

“The Day”

The day is gray
as stone: the stones
embedded in the
dirt road are chips
of it. How dark it
gets here in the
north when a cold
front moves in. The
wind starts up. It
keens around the
house in long
sharp sighs at
windows. More
leaves come down
and are borne
sidewise. In the
woods a flock
of small white
moths fluttered,
flying, like the
leaves. The wind
in trees, a
heavy surge, drowns
out the water-
fall: from here,
a twisted thread.
Winter knocks at
the door. Don’t
let it in. But
those shivering,
hovering late
the size of big
snowflakes: what
were they doing
there, so late
in the year? Had
they laid their
eggs, and fluttered\
in the then still
woods, aware of
the coming wind,
the storm, their
end? But they
were beautiful,
there in the woods,
frantic with life.

(Cheers to Kent Leatham for bringing this poem to my attention.)

OK, so as for Christmas, is there some way poetry can help me get away from Christmas™ and back to plain-old Christmas? I suppose that’s a little more complicated, as I’m not Christian. Can you help me get some recession-ready winter holiday cheer?
— Dr. Sunshine

Even though there’s some debate as to when he was actually born — even among Christians — Christmas is a day that celebrates Jesus, and no matter how you look at it, he was a good guy who preached peace, love, and charity. People see what they want to see, so instead of seeing shameless advertisements or dollar signs this holiday season, just look for the noble ideals underneath all that. And if that means immersing yourself in poems, so be it!

“Sparrows “

A certain traveler who knew many continents
was asked what he found most remarkable
of all. He replied: the ubiquity of sparrows.
—ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI, Another Beauty

Sparrow: our generic for any of the small brown birds
We find everywhere. A farm field in early April,
Nothing yet green. Or a sidewalk downtown

Edged with February’s dirty snow, a scrap
Of paper with someone’s name on it
Skittering in a gust of building-tunneled wind.

Sparrows: fussing about in the dirt, washing
Themselves in a gutter’s runoff, hanging on
The dry seed head of a winter weed.

Barn, strip mall, field, swamp, college ivy,
Wal-Mart sign: all places to prove their gift for
Survival. Like the poor, they are their own keepers.

Once in Palestine there were so many, two
Could be had for the price of one farthing,
But Jesus said his father knew each one of them,

Just as the hairs on our head were numbered.
Those must have been house sparrows; they were
Fruitful and multiplied because they fed on

The droppings of horses and cattle. Sparrows.
I never learned them well enough. They slipped
In and out of my focus, the color of dust

And dirt, common featured. Field sparrow,
Fox sparrow, song sparrow, swamp sparrow.

It took so much attention to give a name

To them, the way, too often, I see the poor
Only as that, their faces hidden as they lie
Like sacks on grates of vented heat. Ubiquitous.

Common featured. How can they be seen
When they are always in sight? When Jesus
Laid his hands on the faces of the poor,

I’d like to believe he saw them as they wanted
To be seen: each a child who belonged
To somebody, who once had a given name.

(Robert Cording)

 • 13 December 2010