‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman is an eight stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, or sextets. The lines follow a rhyme scheme that conforms, almost entirely, to the pattern of, ABABCC, alternating end sounds throughout the other stanzas. There are two exceptions to this rule though. The first and fifth stanzas are a little different. They follow a pattern of ABCBDD. There is only a small shift in the rhyme, but it is notable.
In regards to the meter, almost all of the lines follow a pattern of iambic tetrameter. This means that the lines contain four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. Two exceptions to this rule are the fifth line of the first stanza and the sixth line of the seventh, which contain nine syllables.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the lead up to Christmas and how everything in a church is decorated for Advent. These images start the poem on a cozy and familiar note. The speaker’s tone is calm and peaceful, he is simply taking in the Christmas imagery. Time progresses, and the speaker moves on to examine the village itself. There are a number of buildings which are also decorated with “paper” and buntings that read “Merry Christmas to you all.”
The next lines move the poem into London. There, the speaker takes note of the shops which are also decorated. They are adorned with “silver bells and flowers. This contrasts somewhat with the simple decorations of the village. In the fifth stanza, he goes through a few of the people who are called to the church on Christmas Eve. They all come, even those who live in the “Dorchester Hotel.”
Stanzas six and seven contain questions. They are used to seek out the truth of the Christian Christmas story, regarding the birth of Christ in a manger. It is clear from the speaker’s tone that he is already a believer, he is just using the questions as a place to start off this last section of the poem.
Throughout stanzas seven and eight he compares the things that people do on Christmas, such as giving bad gifts and spending time with family to what he thinks really matters. That is the birth of Christ and giving proper time and appreciation to the story.
You can read the full poem here.
The repetition in the poem is one of its most notable features. This can be seen through the use of anaphora, or the use and reuse of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. It is prominently used in stanza five where “And” begins four of the six lines.
Other sources of repetition in ‘Christmas’ are consonance and assonance. These are seen when either a consonant or vowel sound repeats itself multiple times in close succession. For an example of consonance see the final stanza in which the letter “l,” especially a double “l,” is used four times within three lines.
Alliteration is also a common element of ‘Christmas.’ It occurs with a letter that begins with multiple words closely placed together, such as “steeple-shaking” in the last stanza and “sweet and silly” in the seventh.
Analysis of Christmas
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
In the first stanza of ‘Christmas’ the speaker begins by describing the setting. He states that it is Advent time, or somewhere in the twenty-four days before Christmas. There is a particular stove in the scene, a “Tortoise stove.” This is not a common household item nowadays but tin the mid-1800s into the 1900s it was quite popular. This was due to its ability to burn fuel over a long period of time.
It comes to be known in the next lines that the speaker is located within a church. When he looks around he can tell that an oil lamp outside in the “night” is shining in. The light is making the “stained-glass window” light up. There are a number of colours in the picture, but it is important that the speaker chose to focus on the “ Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.” These are of course red and green, the traditional colours of Christmas.
So far, Betjeman seems interested in bringing up feelings of nostalgia. These are brought about through the familiar sights and sounds of Christmas that he presents. They would be familiar to a large number of people.
The holly in the windy hedge
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes what is outside the church. There is a great deal of “holly” that he knows that this will soon be used,
to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
It runs all the way around the “Manor House” and perhaps as is tradition, they are going to use it to cover as many surfaces in the church as is appropriate. It is the goal of the decorators and those who work in the church that the villagers say that the church looks especially nice on Christmas.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.
In the third stanza, the speaker moves into the village. He describes the “Provincial Public Houses” and how they “blaze.” The speaker also shifts to the first person, placing himself in the scene and allowing a more intimate look into the town. At this point, there has been no elaboration on the location of the village. It seems to be a cozy place though, one that any number of people could relate to.
When he looks around him he can see “lighted tenements.” He gazes at them and on the “paper decorations.” So far, it appears as though the entire village is ready for Christmas. There is also a “bunting” or flag in the town hall that is there to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.”
And London shops on Christmas Eve
The many-steepled London sky.
In the fourth stanza, there is a reference to London. As London is definitely not a village, it is likely that the speaker is moving away from his immediate surroundings and onto the larger landscape of England. He imagines the shops on Christmas Eve and how they,
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
The shops are decorated just like all the buildings in the speaker’s village, if somewhat more extensively. This is a unifying image of what the winter season, and Christmas in particular can achieve. The people in the cities do their best to leave quickly in order to get to the “pigeon-haunted classic towers.” This is a very interesting metaphor that refers to churches. The speaker knows that a large segment of the population can be found in church on Christmas Eve.
The stanza ends with two lines about how London looks with “marbled clouds” in the sky, and the many church steeples pressing up above the other buildings.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker moves forward in time to Christmas morning. There are a number of different types of people referenced in this section. They range from the rich boys and girls to the “oafish louts.” They all remember something, either mom or dad. This is family time, and memories are flowing.
He goes on to speak about the sleepless children who on Christmas morning are “glad” to see what the day is going to bring. There is another mention of bells ringing, just like in the first stanza. This time it is not “Advent bells” but “Christmas-morning bells.” They say to the public, the rich and the poor, “‘Come!’” The call is for everyone, even the super-rich who live at the “Dorchester Hotel.”
A reader should take note of how Betjeman made use of anaphora in this stanza. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. “And” is used four times in this stanza. There is also an interesting use of consonance in these lines. It occurs with the repetition of the letter “l” in multiple words. It crops up noticeably seven times in these six lines.
And is it true,
Become a Child on earth for me ?
The sixth stanza is made up of two questions about the traditional Christian Christmas story. The speaker asks if this “most tremendous tale of all” is actually true. This is less of an actual question and more of an exciting query. He wants to speak about,
A Baby in an ox’s stall…
The Maker of the stars and sea
These rhymes add to the magic of the story, as does the use of alliteration with the repetition of the “s” sound. It is scattered throughout this stanza. The speaker is enjoying the importance of this story and its relationship to the day. His questions extend into the next stanza.
And is it true ? For if it is,
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
He asks again, “is it true?” then, if so, everything that human beings do on Christmas is rather meaningless. These traditions include:
Around those tissued fripperies,
They are fun to participate in, but are unnecessary in the end. They don’t mean anything because they don’t tap into the story that inspired the Christmas season. Nor do the “inexpensive” bath salts and the “silly Christmas things” that people buy. While insulting the objects people spend their time and money on, he also tries to mediate his criticism with words like “kindly” and “sweet.” He knows that these things are not done out of disrespect.
The speaker is simply hoping to draw attention to the reason that people celebrate Christmas in the first place. This continues into the next stanza.
No love that in a family dwells,
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Anaphora is used again in this stanza with the word “No” beginning two, and “Nor” one, of the lines. By repeating the negation, he is able to build up the importance of Christmas. It is “not” any of the things he mentions in the first three lines, or in the previous six. Christmas is not about “love…in a family,” or “carolling in frosty air” or, “all the steeple-shaking bells.” These three things, especially when compared to the last stanza, seem to be more important.
But, the speaker does not really think so. He sees them as being just as disconnected to Christmas as the ugly ties and bath salts. What is important, is the story of Christ and how “God was man in Palestine.” The sacrifice that Christ made now lives “today in Bread and Wine.” It is this simple fact that should be appreciated on Christmas, or at least in amongst the caroling and gift-giving.