For me, the greatest gift of the Christmas season is time to read. The offices and schools are closed. The weather is often appalling. The nights are long and dark and seem designed expressly for the purpose of snuggling under a blanket on the sofa with the tree lights twinkling, a glass of something tempting within easy reach and a great big pile of delicious-smelling, beautiful new books. I have small children now, so it’s more of a challenge to find uninterrupted reading time, and I’ve found myself turning more and more frequently to poetry. Unlike a novel, I can easily slip reading a poem into the brief pockets of calm bought with a new colouring book or puzzle. Here are some of my festive favourites – all would make great gifts, too.
Never has the exhilaration of whirling about on ice-skates been better captured than by Wordsworth, in a breathless and beautiful section of ‘The Prelude’ which I included in my second anthology, Tyger Tyger Burning Bright. I speak as a clumsy person, whose few attempts at skating have resulted in the kind of falls that elicit audible gasps from witnesses and some truly spectacular bruising. If Wordsworth can fill me with the desire to sail across frozen lakes under a wide wintry night sky, he can inspire anyone.
The Journey of the Magi can be found in this beautiful edition of selected T. S. Eliot poems (if, like me, you are a fetishist for stylish endpapers, this volume won’t disappoint.) It has an eerie, cold magic to it, perfect for reading and chewing over on a bitter winter’s night.
I love Betjeman’s ‘Christmas’, with its evocation of the pull of family (‘And girls in slacks remember Dad,/And oafish louts remember Mum’) and the seasonal cheer infecting everyone everywhere – from ‘provincial public houses’ to ‘many-steepled London’. Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’ perfectly captures how some scrap of childhood magic can cling to Christmas Eve and the vision of the nativity no matter what age we are. On a melancholy note, ‘Blue’, from Di Slaney’s recent collection Reward for Winter, is a moving reminder that Christmas can be an agonising time for some.
A contemporary poem I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed is one for the festive refuseniks: ‘Bah… Humbug’ by Gregory Woods. I love the jolly chaos of a family Christmas – but I can’t deny the allure of a solitary, batteries-not-included celebration with ‘books to the left of you,/gin to the right’. This poem is part of Christmas Crackers, a pamphlet designed to be sent instead of a greetings card – perfect if you’d like to say something more substantial than ‘Season’s greetings’.
I bought this edition of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ a few years ago and am frankly delighted that my four year old insists on hearing it all year old. Clement C Moore’s poem is a nostalgic delight and the gorgeous, admirably sturdy pop-up illustrations are magical. Due to our – frequently unseasonal – repeated readings, I am now word perfect. This confers an additional advantage: I can name all the reindeer (and, no, Rudolf doesn’t feature) and am therefore a splendid addition to any Christmas pub quiz team. Moore was a slightly unlikely Christmas poet, being an academic whose other works were heavy tomes on Hebrew. Legend has it that he composed this, his only famous poem, to entertain his children during a sleigh ride through Greenwich Village on Christmas Eve 1822, basing jolly St Nicholas on their coachman. I hope it’s true.
Whatever you do at Christmas and wherever you are, I wish you happy reading. May your stocking be full of books and your cheeseboard always groaning.
Ana Sampson is the editor of five poetry anthologies including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, Poems to Learn by Heart and, her latest, Best-Loved Poems. She works as a freelance publicist and copywriter and tweets as @Anabooks.