What is it about a winter holiday poem that can touch us so deeply? Did you know that Nobel Laureate, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was so taken with Christmas that he wrote a Christmas poem every year (now collected in his book Nativity Poems, https://www.amazon.com/Nativity-Poems-Bilingual-Joseph-Brodsky/dp/0374528578)?
Here’s an example:
Star of the Nativity
By Joseph Brodsky (December 1987)
In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.
To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.
Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.
Holiday poems and stories have an lasting appeal, they take us back to childhood, they remember things not always present in our minds, and they can make us laugh or cry. Most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’s story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. For this prompt, we’re going to do some variations on the past, present, and future theme, and you’ll need to think about your past, present, and future Christmases, Chanukahs, Kwanzaas, or other annual winter-season celebrations.
And here’s one of my all-time favorite winter holiday poems, written by my late friend and fellow poet, Gail Gerwin (from her book Dear Kinfolk):
Are We Done Yet?
By Gail Fishman Gerwin
When my daughter was four
we lit the Chanukah candles
on the wedding-present menorah
atop the Lane record cabinet,
our first purchase as a married couple.
In our new home we could peer
out the window at the house below,
where the Todds’ Christmas tree
in their den blazed lights of every
color, reflected by glossy ornaments,
all leading to a star on top that seemed
to descend directly from Heaven.
We chanted our prayers,
Barukh atah Adonai,
Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam,
allowed Karen to hold the
shamash, the service candle,
for her first time, hustled Katey
to the other side of the room
lest she set her pajamas aflame.
Our ritual complete, we gifted
the girls—a doll, a book, a toy
from preschool (only a hundred
sixty-four dollars for an entire year,
reads the bill I unearthed in the
basement as I rummaged through
that crowded cavern where we
store our past).
Dinner, I told everyone, the greasy
latkes already burning at the edges
as they sat in oil on the new gold
General Electric range.
Wait, Mommy, I have a question,
Karen said, what’s that in the window
over there? It’s a Christmas tree, I told her.
Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?
Because we’re Jewish, I said. She wanted
to know then, before eating brisket
cut into small pieces so she wouldn’t
choke, before crunching the latkes,
now on the edge of soggy,
When will we be finished being Jewish?
1. Write about a holiday about your past (dig deeply into family memories).
2. Write a poem in which you compare winter holidays of the past, present, and/or future.
3. Write about seasonal ghosts that haunt you.
4. Write about people from your past who are no longer with you and how that impacts your present holiday season; or, write about one special person with whom you always associate the winter holidays.
5. Write about aspects of winter holiday traditions that remain part of your annual celebrations.
6. Write about the faith and/or cultural aspects of your winter holidays.
7. Write about one unforgettable winter holiday.
8. Write about holiday food treats and how they sweeten your memories.
9. Write about a holiday song that replays in your mind because of its associations (or, write your own words to a Christmas carol or other winter holiday song).
10. Write a poem based on an old Christmas, Chanukah, or other winter holiday photograph
11. Write about a historical holiday-time event.
12. Write about a winter holiday yet to come. You might consider a fantasy poem with a futuristic sensibility.
1. Keep in mind that holiday literature can be tricky—be sure to sidestep the pitfalls of sentimentality, schmaltziness, nostalgia, and clichés.
2. Work toward fresh and original language, figures of speech, and an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
3. Be sure to show through examples and imagery—don’t simply tell.
4. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).
5. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles, conjunctions, and unnecessary adjectives too).
6. Think about your poem. What it reveals about being human? Is there a message larger than your memory or subject? How might your readers relate to your poem?