CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Irish Lit: Christmas Card Poems

By Dr. Jeanne Colleran

Beginning in 1976, when Seamus Heaney, his wife Marie, and their three children, Michael, Catherine, and Christopher, moved away from dangerous Belfast to County Wicklow in the Republic, the Nobel Prize winning poet began to include poems in his Christmas cards. He had the cards privately printed in limited batches by Peter Fallon, with a simple design on the front and the poem within. Other poets, notably Robert Frost, also sent out new poems in their Christmas cards, and they are reproduced in a lovely collection called Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lawrence Sail.

Not all of  Seamus Heaney’s card-poems are Christmas-themed; some are early versions of works that he revised that became among his most famous, such as the Tollund Man. Many appeared in later collections, lightly changed, or substantially revised. In all there are 23 Christmas Card poems.

The first, “Catherine’s Poem,” from 1976, is a simple quatrain of his three-year-old daughter’s questions:

Aren’t poems like your toys, Daddy?”

Catherine said.

“And didn’t you and Mammy make me

And God made the thread?”

(Island of the Children: An Anthology of New Poems  
Ed. Angela Ruth (London, Orchard Books, 1987)

We can imagine that Heaney, charmed, included it in his holiday greetings to close family and friends, with little thought of starting a Christmas tradition. Nevertheless, he continued, and these poems provide glimpses of Heaney’s style and interests, especially and his great concern for the “The Spirit Level,” as he called a later collection.

Christmas Poems

Of the poems that are specifically about Christmas, the one I find most moving is called “The Manger.”  Sent in 1998, The Manger is double voiced, a Heaney characteristic in poems where he describes a scene from his past with the specificity of that moment and his reaction at that time, but he then overlays or shifts the scene from the past moment to present recollection.

Memory poems such as The Manger depict a scene from the past that is subtly infused with mature insight. The mastery of such poems is that the insight does not disrupt the immediacy of the recall, even as it signals the later interpretation.

Original Copy of Seamus Heaney's the Manger

In The Manger, the child-narrator is looking at the church’s Christmas creche, and he is disappointed. He is put off by the “gloss and chill” of the plaster Infant Jesus.

“He wasn’t right at all,” the innocent child thinks about the artificial Christ. He regards the whole scene from his own farm knowledge, satisfied that the solid shepherds, stiff-lugged donkeys (a good word in Anglo-Irish to mean having carried), and Joseph and Mary are “truly placed.”

The cow is altogether wrong: badly-scaled and plaster-fake. But the biggest problem is there is “no manger to be seen.”  No “arm-filled, fodder-billowing manger-mouth.” That’s the hard line; the crux of his confusion. Heaney warned us already that the Christ-child was “seed-nailed,” an anticipation of the sacrifice to come, crucifixion and nativity inextricably joined (like the great painting by Francisco de Zurbaran in CMA of the young Christ weaving a crown of thorns while his mother sorrowfully watches).

The image is one example of the double-consciousness of the poem, since the child would think the black dot on the plaster Christ child’s hand was like a seed, and the adult would know that the seed was to become the flesh-impaled nails of the Crucifixion.  But the manger is absent, and no one has brought arms-full of hay or food or comfort.

At the communion rail—invoking the Catholic trope of the body as a vessel or a manger and communion as the food or fodder — the child kneels and learns, “almost,” not to admit the “let-down.” But it is there, nagging, and unspecified. It might be many things, especially to the more-knowing adult who has written the remembrance: how far the statues, like all art and words, are from sublimity; how the miraculous no longer inspires awe; how without awe, there is no uplift (let-down’s opposite); how generosity fails. Transformation is always Heaney’s poetic quest, though this poem allows for a consubstantiation of faith and doubt.

Seamus Heaney always signed his card a gra – with love. A gift of love. Here is my modest attempt.


Reader
For my mother, Regina Colleran, A gra

Billy sat in the stroller,

Jim and I each held a handle, 

While our mother pushed from behind,

Urging us on: Keep walking.

Keep walking.

 

We were six, four, and two,

Off to the  library, past the little store

that sold penny candy, watched over by a

Hundred-year-old woman,

surely a witch,

 

We thought, but our mother said no.

On past the firehouse,

the post office, the shoe repair,

an endless trek, till we arrived,

and were let loose

 

Among the shelves of picture books.

Our mother gave back her great stack

of thick novels and mysteries

to choose another three or four

to last the week.

 

She had to forgo sleep to read

but still she roused us early

and made the eggs and sent us off

to learn less than what she had

already taught us.

The first paragraphs of this article are indebted to Ashby Bland Crowder’s “Christmas Greetings from Seamus Heaney: in New Hibernia Review, Vol. 21, No. 3 (AUTUMN 2017), pp. 34-58.  The 23 Christmas poems are cited in Rand Brandes and Michael J. Durkan, Seamus Heaney: A Bibliography, 1959-2003 (London: Faber, 2009). They are:  “Catherine’s Poem” (1976); “Christmas Eve” (1978); “Changes” (1980); “Holly” (1981); “Sweeney and the Saint” (1982); “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann” (1983);”Dangerous Pavements” (1987); “A Rich Hour” (1988); “The Settle Bed” (1989); “Field of Vision” (1990); “A Transgression” (1991); “Tollund” (1994); “The dotted line” (1995); “Jesus and the Sparrows” (1996); “Would They Had Stayed” (1997); “The Manger” (1998); “A Light Appeared” (1999); “At the Hillhead” (2000); “I Sing of a Maiden” (2003); “Miracle” (2006); “Wind Fierce Tonight” (2007); “Derry I Cherish” (2008) and “Look Far” (2009.)

Find this column and others from the December 2023 issue here.

Dr. Jeanne Colleran

*Dr. Jeanne Colleran, Ph.D is Professor Emeritus of English. At John Carroll University she served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and as the Provost and Academic Vice President. At Loyola University of Chicago, she worked with the Loyola Rule of Law Institute in the School of Law.

A scholar of modern and contemporary literature, she has published a book, an edited collection, and some three dozen articles concerning literature and society. She has lectured in Ireland, South Africa, England, United States, France, Canada, Belgium, and The Netherlands. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Irish Literature. She may be reached at [email protected]

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