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The Essence of Christmas in the Eyes of a Non-Christian Poet

Christmas moment should be used to integrate all people to transform the evil, desperate and chaotic world into a pure, hopeful, and peaceful one.

Christmas is a yearly Christian festival held to celebrate the birth of Christ who comes to reconcile God and sinful people. The festival usually begins some days before 25 December and continues for around 1 to 2 weeks after that. During the festival, Christians attend Christmas service at the church, put a Christmas tree to their homes and decorate it with colorful balls, ribbons, and lights, enjoy a special meal, and exchange gifts. To attain the purpose of Christmas more effectively, different countries or regions add their local elements to these traditional customs and symbols. In some countries, parades and religious processions are also held. In many regions, the parades include Santa Claus and some other seasonal characters. Although it is originally a Christian festival, today's Christmas celebration has surpassed the cultural and religious boundaries and has grown to become a symbolic time for living in peace and love.


Literature has also been inspiring many poets. Whittier’s "A Christmas Carmen", Longfellow’s “The Three Kings”, Kipling’s "Christmas in India", Tennyson’s “Ring out, Wild Bells”, Bryant’s "The Star of Bethlehem", and Angelou’s “Amazing Peace” are some widely-read poems about Christmas. Some of these works share memories and joy of Christmas. Others appeal for celebrating it for faith restoration and grief erasure. Some others reflect the spiritual essence of Christmas. Still, some others invite all people to experience togetherness and serenity at Christmas. 


The poem to discuss in this essay is “Christmas”, written by Subagio Sastrowardoyo, a well-known Indonesian poet, short-story writer, essayist, and literary critic. This poem is interesting to discuss due to two reasons. First, it was written by a non-Christian poet. Second, it was written based on the poet’s experience during his study (he was graduated with an MA from Yale University in 1963) and an extended stay in the United States. This poem is one of the three sections of the poem titled “Di Negeri Asing” (“On Foreign Shores”) which expresses the poet’s impressions of the United States. Translated and edited by John H. McGlynn, it was published with 68 poems written by various Indonesian poets based on their experiences after staying in the US in the anthology named “On Foreign Shores: American Images in Indonesian Poetry” by The Lontar Foundation (1990).


Sastrowardoyo’s “Christmas” is a short free-verse poem consisting of 10 lines. The first four lines describe how the coming of Christ purifies the world. The image obtained from the snow which falls abundantly in the Christmas season in America is used by the speaker to describe the purity of the world because of the coming of Christ. The world’s purity is supported by the metaphor depicting how the sky which was used to be depraved murder and lust (l. 3) has been cleaned so that it is now as soft as the hands of a ten-day-old (l. 4).


These lines show the speaker’s understanding of the Christian faith about the essence of Christ's coming to the world, i.e. to reconcile people who, due to their sinful nature were alienated from God. It is impossible for the human being to restore their relationship with God using their human power. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, people have tried to restore the relationship through physical sacrifices. But these sacrifices were an imperfect way to remove the penalty for sin. This made people hopeless. So, the only way is by God’s coming to the world, living a perfect life on earth, and then dying as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. With the birth of Christ, people become hopeful.

     When Christ was born
     The world turned white
     And the sky once darkened by blood and lust
     become soft like the hands of a ten-day-old


In the next lines, the speaker presents an image to describe how great Christmas is. The image, expressed through a simile comparing a man standing still with an Egyptian statue, depicts how a person who realizes the event is so amazed that he stands still looking towards Christ.

     Man stands frozen, as an Egyptian statue,
     eyes fixed in one direction

In the last four lines, the speaker reiterates that the birth of Christ makes the world pure and peaceful like the condition before Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was born. Before closing the poem, the speaker uses the image of “snow” to emphasize the pure condition of the world. In the last line, the speaker invites the reader to be in peace because Christ, also known as the Prince of Peace, has been in the world.

     No blood is split. For Cain who slayed
     his brother is not yet born
     All is white, Snow is falling
     Shhh … Be silent. Christ is here.

Despite its brevity, “Christmas” manages to clearly communicate the true and amazing essence of Christ’s birth. Since it restores people's relationship with God, it transforms the former evil condition into a pure one, desperateness to hopefulness, and chaos to peace. Christmas is really amazing. It transforms the “blood and lusty” world “white”. It brings hope and peace.

The fact that “Christmas” was written by a non-Christian poet far away from home and the poem invites the readers who can also be non-Christians to be in peace because “Christ is here”, it seems the poet wants to act as an assimilationist. He wants people to use the Christmas moment to integrate for transforming the evil, desperate and chaotic world into a pure, hopeful, and peaceful one.

Have a transformative Christmas!


Author : Parlindungan Pardede (parlin@weedutap.com)



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