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“The Basic Mechanics of Christmas”
In 1963, the young poet Joseph Brodsky wrote his first poem dedicated to Christmas. His final poem dedicated to this subject was Flight into Egypt, written in December 1995. The poet died the following January in New York.
Brodsky strove to write a poem about Christmas each year, and as a result the Nativity cycle of poems spanning his entire life was created. The poet can be by no means considered a church-going person. He was never baptized. But sometimes in conversations he would state that he found Calvinism most appealing, “because according to Calvinist doctrine man answers to himself for everything.” He was also attracted to the Book of Job, where the God of the Old Testament stands in all his frightening willfulness. So why was this ever-present interest in the story of the Nativity? After all, in this story Christ is shown as a helpless baby and closest to the human condition.
Perhaps this itself is the reason. Brodsky, in his paradoxical manner of thinking, perceived God in his most extreme revelations – the inaccessible transcendental and the immanent. Another reason for his propensity for the Christmas story was his firm conviction that European culture was born in Christianity. Responding to a question on why he is a Christian, Brodsky reportedly responded: “Because I am not a barbarian…” For him Christianity was a cultural bulwark against barbarism, but his response we also find something provocative. Both the person asking the question and Brodsky himself were of Jewish ancestry. And the poet sensed a sort of reproach for his disregard of Judaism, a reproach that he encountered on numerous occasions in his life. But it seems to me that there could be another reason for his provocative response.
Perhaps the best known of his Christmas poems was one written in 1971.
When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
The poet with great satisfaction focused on the flood of consumerism associated with Christmas. In this sense people have changed very little. Brodsky wrote this poem on Christmas Eve according to the Gregorian calendar – December 24. During this time in Russia people rush about stocking up on goods for New Year’s celebrations, both then and now. But the poet did not see this poem as an attack on consumerism, as during the deficit ridden Soviet times there could be no real opportunity to feast.
And this is what the poet is writing about – “bearers of moderate gifts leap on buses and jam all the doorways, disappear into courtyards that gape.” What are they celebrating? State atheism had squashed the memory of the Biblical story. The cave in Bethlehem was empty for them:
they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.
But a miracle occurs, and light shines into this emptiness. The nonbelievers have “no demand for a star, but a sort of goodwill touched with grace can be seen in all men from afar, and the shepherds have kindled their fires.” And that is why people “push tables together” to prepare for the celebration. Of course, evil has not subsided – “Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.” Furthermore, the merrymakers do not understand who they are waiting for:
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.
But from “the thick mist of the hours of darkness,” the image of a woman, “a shape in a shawl stands revealed.” And along with it:
both a newborn and a Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there: a star.
The image of the Madonna is familiar to everyone and reminds us of the miracle of our own birth. It helps us tear our eyes away from things trivial, and raise them skyward to see the sign of the Holy Child, the Star of Bethlehem.
Speeding along to the joyful ending of the poem, we often skip over the puzzling fourth stanza.
Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.
The simplest interpretation of this stanza would be to view it in light of the unattractive reality of the time and place in which it was written. King Herod killed innocent babies but nonetheless failed to prevent the birth of Christ. Similarly, the Moloch of totalitarianism forced people to forget not only about Christ but also their own humanity. However, the more force one uses the greater the likelihood of failure. And this is true, but it is only one particular example of what the poet had in mind. Otherwise he wouldn’t have written about “the constancy of this relation.”
Most likely the message here is about the inextricable malevolence in each of us. Brodsky writes: “Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.” Perhaps he is drinking at one of the tables next to us. Perhaps this could be drunken father who batters his wife and children. Malevolence can break out in all sorts of circumstances. What’s worse, barbarism can be found in any society regardless of political system. Although in the worst of systems it manifests itself in the most horrible ways.
I would venture to say that Christianity for Brodsky was an inexhaustible source of the miraculous, which helps man restrain the barbarian within. This is the “mechanism of Christmas,” whose function is not explicable by rational thinking. “Herod reigns but the stronger he is, the more sure, the more certain the wonder” – “lights as if out of nowhere.” Perhaps this is what Brodsky meant when provocatively responding to the question of why he is a Christian: because he is not a barbarian. A direct answer to an all too personal question.