Dec. 25, 2006

Rejoicing with Henry

by Maxine Kumin

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Poem: "Rejoicing with Henry" by Maxine Kumin, from Selected Poems: 1960-1990. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Rejoicing with Henry

Not that he holds with church, but Henry goes
Christmas morning in a tantrum of snow,
Henry, who's eighty-two and has no kin
and doesn't feature prayer, but likes the singing.

By afternoon the sun is visible,
a dull gun-metal glint. We come to call
bearing a quart of home-made wine a mile
and leading Babe, our orphaned hand-raised foal.

This gladdens Henry, who stumps out to see
Babe battle the wooden bridge. Will she
or won't she? Vexed with a stick she leaps across
and I'm airborne as well. An upstate chorus
on Henry's radio renders loud
successive verses of "Joy to the World."

In spite of all the balsam growing free
Henry prefers a store-bought silver tree.
It's lasted him for years, the same
crimped angel stuck on top. Under, the same
square box from the Elks. Most likely shaving cream,
says Henry, who seldom shaves or plays the host.

Benevolent, he pours the wine. We toast
the holiday, the filly beating time
in his goat shed with her restive hooves. That's youth
says Henry when we go to set her loose,
Never mind. Next year, if I live that long,
she'll stand in the shafts. Come Christmas Day
we'll drive that filly straight to town.
Worth waiting for, that filly. Nobody says

the word aloud: Rejoice. We plod
home tipsily and all uphill to boot,
the pale day fading as we go
leaving our odd imprints in the snow
to mark a little while the road
ahead of night's oncoming thick clubfoot.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of scientist and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, (books by this author) born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England (1642). As a professor of mathematics, Newton made discoveries about the nature of light and color, and he developed a more advanced telescope. But then he began to think about why planets travel in orbits around the sun, and why they never stopped. Those questions resulted in his laws of motion: that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

He said, "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Today is Christmas Day. About 96 percent of Americans say that they celebrate Christmas in one way or another; but Christians didn't start celebrating Christmas until the fourth century A.D. Apparently, the earliest Christians weren't nearly as interested in Jesus' birth as they were in his resurrection from the dead. Historians believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel to be written about Jesus, around 50 A.D., and it doesn't even mention Jesus' birth. It starts with his adult baptism.

Only the Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell the story of Jesus' birth, and they give slightly different accounts. In the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to the Son of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is Joseph who learns in a dream that Mary is pregnant with the Son of God.

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Mary and Joseph went to the city of Bethlehem because of the Roman census, and since there was no room at the inn, they were forced to take shelter in the barn, where Jesus was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The Gospel of Matthew tells how a group of wise men go to find the baby that has been prophesized as the future king of the Jews. They follow a bright star in the East until they find Jesus, and they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christian bishops only began to celebrate Jesus' birth after a great debate over how human Jesus had really been. Some Christians believed he was just a spirit, with no body at all. But after much discussion, the church in Rome took the official stance that Jesus had possessed a real human body. Scholars believe that the church began celebrating Jesus' birth as a way of emphasizing his bodily humanity. The first mention of a Nativity feast appears in a Roman document from 354 A.D., and that document is the first to list December 25 as his official birthday.

No one knows exactly why the date of December 25th was chosen, but it was probably because December 25th was the date set for a Roman festival honoring the sun god Mithras. It also coincided with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was widely celebrated throughout the Roman Empire.

Unfortunately for the church, Saturnalia was usually celebrated with drunken revelry. And for Christians, for the next thousand years or so, Christmas became the wildest party of the year. There were huge feasts and street parties that often led to riots. It was writers who helped turn Christmas into more of a domestic holiday. The poem "The Night Before Christmas," published in 1823, was one of the first works of literature to suggest that Christmas should be focused more on children than adults. And Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol, in 1843, helped popularize the idea that Christmas should be about family.

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