Christmas Eve Poem

December 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


The words of Phillips Brooks’s Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” have had a mysterious power for me since I first heard them sung, as a small child.

Brooks, I later learned, wrote the carol as a poem on a visit to Bethlehem in 1868. He was most famous in his time for a sermon he delivered, in that same period, on the subject of the Civil War dead.

Now I associate the silent, dark streets he describes with the silence of the young men missing from little towns all over the North and the South:

O little town of Bethlehem, 
How still we see thee lie! 
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by; 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
The everlasting Light; 
The hopes and fears of all the years 
Are met in thee to-night.

Brooks’s haunting evocation of seasonal hopes and fears were in my mind when I wrote my own poem, “December Blues.” My poem too ncludes fears, as well as hopes-as in this holiday season of potential war. Here are its closing lines:

In the shopping center lots, lights mounted on cold standards
Tower and stir, condensing the blue vapor

Of the stars; between the rows of cars people in coats walk
Bundling packages in their arms or holding the hands of children.

Across the highway, where a town thickens by the tracks
With stores open late and crèches in front of the churches,

Even in the bars a businesslike set of the face keeps off
The nostalgic pitfall of the carols, tugging. In bed,

How low and still the people lie, some awake, holding the carols
Consciously at bay, Oh Little Town, enveloped in unease.