A Christmas Childhood
by Patrick Kavanagh
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’ –
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
From Collected Poems (2004). Edited by Antoinette Quinn, Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
In this, one of Ireland’s most beloved and recognised poems, ‘A Christmas Childhood’, Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967) explores themes of memory, coming of age, and imagination. The poem is set in 1910 and it is a memory poem. We are told that Kavanagh was ‘six Christmases of age’ but the poem also remembers and celebrates the original Christmas event almost two thousand years earlier. The poet is looking back on the magical and mysterious world of childhood and he is mourning its passing with some regret.
The poet recognises that his childhood was a time when the ordinary seemed extraordinary. Through figurative language and colourful imagery, he paints a picture of his early childhood and what it meant to be a child in those difficult times. In line one, we are presented with a factual and accurate description: ‘One side of the potato-pits was white with frost’ and line two is powered with emotion. The tone, the use of repetition and the exclamation mark in ‘How wonderful that was, how wonderful!’ convey wonder and excitement.
Similar to his poem ‘Advent’, this poem uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery. Kavanagh’s spirituality is to the fore and this was very much informed and influenced by traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic theology. He desires to return to the state of childish innocence when he was six years old and Christmas surely brings out the child in all of us! Kavanagh’s well-worn theory was that if he could rediscover a world of childhood innocence he would ipso facto become a better poet. Indeed, the poem’s title gives the game away: he describes his childhood as ‘a Christmas childhood’ rather than the more limiting ‘a childhood Christmas’.
Both ‘Advent’ and ‘A Christmas Childhood’, therefore, are very religious poems – religious at a very personal level. Kavanagh’s feeling is that experience has corrupted him – in ‘Advent’ he tells us that he has ‘tested and tasted too much’ and this has echoes in this poem when he says:
O you Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it!
He wants to bring back the newness that was in the world before things grew stale through over-familiarity. In ‘Advent’ he lists the mundane things that will inspire him in the New Year: a ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be new again; the boring chat of a tedious old man will become wonderful; the whole ordinary, ‘banal’, common world of reality will be renewed; wonderful then will be ‘whins’, ‘bog holes’, ‘cart-tracks’, ‘old stables’. To this list, he now adds ‘potato pits’, ‘paling posts’ and,
The tracks of cattle to a drinking place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch …
The poem is in two parts: Part II first appeared in The Bell magazine (December 1940) and Part I was published in The Irish Press (24 December 1943). Part I describes the townland of Mucker in the parish of Inniskeen, County Monaghan, and explores, from an adult’s perspective, how childhood is a time of innocence, an innocence that we inevitably lose. As a child he saw ‘An apple tree/ With its December-glinting fruit’ but just as Eve ate the apple which led to man’s Fall and sinful state, Kavanagh knows that as we leave childhood behind us we lose our innocence. The Garden of Eden is no more; but Christmas is a time when an Eden-like world becomes possible. Adulthood, says Kavanagh, blinds us to the beauty, freshness and innocence of childhood but it can be recaptured occasionally, especially at Christmas time.
Part II of the poem introduces a cast of characters – Kavanagh’s father, his beloved mother, and the neighbours. In Antoinette Quinn’s words ‘Through a series of crisp, lucid images it conjures up the child’s sense of being part of a family and a closely-knit Catholic community’. Everything is in harmony and the poem is very musical. We hear his father’s melodeon, the music that came from putting his ear to the paling-post, the music of milking, the screech of the water-hen in the nearby bog, the crunch of feet on the icy potholes along the road and also the sound of the bellows wheel in the country kitchen. And of course, the beautiful onomatopoeic line ‘I nicked six nicks on the doorpost’ which creates its own marvellous music also. The melodeon calls to the Lennons and Callans and the stars dance to his father’s music. The music unites one place to another and neighbour to neighbour. The imagery of Co. Monaghan blends with imagery from the Biblical account of Christ’s birth: ‘The light of her stable-lamp was a star’ and the ‘three whin bushes’ become ‘the Three Wise Kings’.
The poem sums up his Christmases and the things that made them memorable and precious to him – his father playing the melodeon, his mother milking the cows, the special gift of ‘a white rose’ that he gave to the Virgin and pinned it on her blouse. He was a real boy – can I say that now? – he notched his age on the doorpost – not six years but ‘six Christmases of age’!
When all is said and done ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is a chatty little poem that deals with simple things in simple, everyday language. Yet this seemingly rustic simplicity can be deceptive and underneath it all, there is the constant realisation of the presence of Christ and Christ’s mother – and perhaps all mothers. After all, the final image is that of a father and mother and child, an ordinary family and the Holy Family.
Little wonder then that at Kavanagh’s funeral in Inniskeen on the 30th of November 1967, Seamus Heaney read ‘A Christmas Childhood’ at his graveside.
Kavanagh, Patrick. Collected Poems. Edited by Antoinette Quinn. Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2004.
Quinn, Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. (Second Edition). Gill Books, 2003.