Instead of the usual Dickensian “A Christmas Carol” Christmas, this year I’d like to wish you all a Thomas Hardy Christmas. Thanks to the miracle of digital archives and public domain, his massive contribution to world literature is all available for free, online. And Christmas is a topic he returned to time and time again.
You can read a full, relatively idyllic description of a mid-Victorian rural Christmas in “Christmas Morning,” sixth chapter of Under the Greenwood Tree. The novel opens “on a cold and starry Christmas-eve.” Here, Hardy also brings up another favorite topic: Music, and the small rural bands who he remembered so well – the novel’s alternate title was The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School.
If you want a briefer, more concentrated dose, though, go to his poems. Much of Hardy’s most memorable, because most epigrammatic, writing about Christmas is in his poetry. And it’s too appropriate for an era beset by wars and rumors of wars. Take “A Christmas Ghost-Story,” dating from 1899, during the Boer War. For an even more acid contrast of modern brutality with Christian claims to peace on earth, in more modern English as well, there’s always “Christmas: 1924,” where: “After two thousand years of mass/We’ve got as far as poison-gas.”
But that isn’t by any means Hardy’s last word on Christmas. There’s a more elegaic treatment of the winter season in “Birds at Winter Nightfall,” which he also returns to in “Winter Night in Woodland (Old Time).” There’s a whole section of such seasonal winter poems in his 1925 collection, Human Shows, Far Phantasies: Songs and Trifles.
And the two themes of Christmas traditions and nature in winter come together in the one Hardy poem that probably everyone most remembers. This post is going up on Christmas Eve at twelve of the clock, just like it says in “The Oxen.” There, despite all his cynicism and jaded view of the intervening two millennia, Hardy returns to one of the earliest Christmas myths, the kneeling animals, and evokes it with all the purity of childhood innocence, which he also touched on at the very end of his life in “Yuletide in a Younger World.” You can read the text here, or in the illuminated text above, published in The Times on Christmas Eve, 1915. Happy Christmas, everybody.