Sir John Betjemen’s 1954 “Christmas “ reworked for 2022 In Wolverhampton

Sir John Betjemen’s classic poem, “Christmas “, written in 1954 has been rewritten for 2022 In Wolverhampton.

Ian Henery, Poet in Residence at 101.8 WCR FM, has rewritten it to make it relevant for a new audience.  The poem will be broadcast online and on FM radio by Wolverhampton’s radio station.

“I was asked to write a series of Advent poems for Christmas “ explained Ian “to be broadcast on 101,8 WCR FM.  The poems would be broadcast once a week in the build up to Christmas.”

  Ian Henery was tasked with looking at the symbolic importance of the 5 candles in the Advent Wreath featured in churches on Sunday.

  “ In previous weeks we`ve looked at the history of the candles and wreath as well as the candle of hope & the candle of peace” explained Ian.

Churches light one candle a week, starting the first week of December.   The 3rd candle is the candle of joy. This candle reflects the joy of Jesus`s arrival on Earth at Christmas.  Although the candles of hope and peace are purple the candle of joy is pink.

“What`s up with the pink candle?” said Ian  Henery.  “It`s not for aesthetics and neither is it because the males among us need to demonstrate just how secure we are in our masculinity.”

The third candle is pink because it has its roots in Gaudete Sunday – the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

  “”Huh?” I hear you exclaim from all 4 corners of Wolverhampton? “ said Ian.

  The introduction for mass is (in Latin) “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete” meaning “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice”.

  “The first time I heard that word “Gaudete” (it`s Latin for “rejoice”) was listening to British folk band Steeleye Span way back in 1972 on Top of the Pops” explained Ian.  “At the time I had no idea what Maddy Prior was singing about.  No one spoke Latin in my family or school.”

 Still active today Steeleye Span are, along with Fairport Convention, amongst the best-known acts of the British folk revival and were among the most commercially successful thanks to their hit singles “Gaudete” and “All Around My Hat”.

  “Gaudete” is a sacred Christmas song and got to number 14 in the UK singles charts with an a Cappella recording of the song.  The song was originally composed in the 16th century.  Guitarist Bob Johnson had heard it when he attended a folk carol service in Cambridge with his father-in-law and brought it to the attention of the rest of the band.     “Gaudete” is 1 of only 3 top 50 British hits to be sung fully in Latin.  It is also one of only a handful of a cappella performances to become a hit single.

“Gaudete is joy of the coming of baby Jesus” said Ian.    “People want to highlight the importance of joy in Advent season.  During a time where depression is at an all-time high and people seem to be in the most despair, this candle offers a bright light during a dark time.”

It is also known as the Shepherd Candle to highlight the joy the shepherds experienced when they received the good news about Jesus` birth.  During the middle of the night, the darkest time, the shepherds encountered angels and ran to Bethlehem to see Jesus in the Christmas Story.

“We don`t have to despair.  At Christmas we can have a joy that no one can take away.  No matter what happens in this dark world, we can experience light.  We have light even in the darkest moments” explained Ian Henery.

It`s also worth looking at the history of Advent wreaths. There is evidence that pre-Christian Germanic people placed candles on wreaths in the middle of winter as a symbol of hope that the warm weather of spring would return.  Ancient Scandinavians placed candles on wheels in “the bleak mid-winter” as an anticipatory devotion to the sun god.  It wasn`t until the Middle Ages that Christians adopted the practice of the Advent wreath as a pre-Christmas devotion.

  “Joy in advent lies in the experience of wholesomeness that Christmas brings.  The deprived in our community will express similar joy if our generosity is extended to them this Christmas.  The joy in our own hearts will motivate actions that will bring joy in the hearts of our neighbours.  Our generosity will bring joy to the hearts of the lonely and abandoned, the poor and homeless and the sad.   Generosity brings joy at Christmas” explained Ian Henery.

Ian Henery’s poem was inspired by “Christmas” by Sir John Betjemen who was an English poet, writer and broadcaster.  He was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death.  He began his career as a journalist and ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate and a much-loved figure on British television.

    The poem is from Sir Betjemen`s 1954 book, “A Few Late Chrysanthemums”.  It`s everything a Christmas poem should be – cheerful, amusing, light-hearted , profound and on point.  It`s immediately accessible: it delivers meaning immediately and ion further reflection much deeper meaning.

“  I remember hearing it first at a carol service where the members of the congregation were smiling, filled with light and Christmas beatitude” said Ian Henery.

Sir John Betjemen  was an Anglican and his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems.  He combined piety with a nagging uncertainty about the truth of Christianity.  Unlike Thomas Hardy, who disbelieved in the truth of the Christmas story while hoping it might be so, Sir John Betjemen affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false in the poem “Christmas”. In the last 3 stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Jesus`s birth he does so in the form of a question “And is it true?”

Sir John Betjemen`s views on Christianity were expressed in his poem “The Conversion of St Paul”, a response to a radio broadcast by humanist Margaret Knight:

“But most of us turn slow to see

The figure hanging on a tree

And stumble on and blindly grope

Upheld by intermittent hope,

God grant before we die we all

May see the light as did St Paul”.

Sir John Betjemen`s poem “Christmas” was written in 1954 and references place names in London to create a lasting and memorable word picture.

  “ What if the poem had been set in Wolverhampton?  And written in 2022“ said Ian Henery.

  “At a distance of half a century some of the allusions referenced in the poem may not be immediately obvious and so my challenge was to completely re-write this classic and set it in Wolverhampton at Christmas time in 2022.”

It`s worth recalling Sir John Betjemen`s own words about poetry.  “Too many people in the modern world view poetry as a luxury, not a necessity like petrol.  But to me it`s the oil of life”.

Christmas in Wolverhampton                                                       (After Sir John Betjemen`s “Christmas”)

Across Wolverhampton, mist gently falls

And the pubs wish their patrons a goodnight;

Lights twinkle from St Mary`s Parish Hall,

Frost glitters on car parks in the moonlight

And shop girls count down for when they can leave

To meet their boyfriends on this Christmas Eve.

In town a Salvation Army band plays

And a muffled choir sings of peace on Earth;

Children gathering around Santa`s sleigh,

Baffled by songs about a virgin`s birth,

Gazing past rooftops to wide-open skies

For just a glance of reindeer who can fly.

Shoppers bustle in the Square and Queen Street

Or the Mander Centre if it might rain;

Familiar places where friends can meet,

The smell of chestnuts in the air again.

Tins rattle for revellers to concede

Seasonal charity for those in need.

German markets and a Norwegian tree,

Coloured lights and the sound of festive cheer;

On display in Wolverhampton, for free,

A celebration at this time of year

When people donate to a worthy cause,

Seeking not publicity or applause.

We remember faces from long ago,

Memories of Christmas are precious things:

A magical time when it sometimes snows

And the shepherds rubbed shoulders with three kings

Plus all the cast of the Nativity

In a festival full of mystery.

And is it true in this great pantomime Of reindeer,

Santa and the three wise men,

God did become human in Palestine,

Made flesh and delivered in Bethlehem:

Jesus, the greatest wonder of them all,

The Christmas Child, born in an oxen`s stall?

Nothing with this truth can ever compare:

God`s love for human-kind was the reason;

Listen to carols in the winter air,

The joy celebrated at this season:

Jesus, Maker of Heaven, Earth and Sea,

Born at Christmas, in Bethlehem, for me.

  Christmas – Christ`s birthday – but we get presents!

Is this the strangest birthday ever told?

“Christmas” starts with “Christ” – all it represents,

God made flesh and born in a manger, cold:

It`s about Jesus, gifts of joy and peace:

It`s a birthday, let unhappiness cease.

Ian Henery

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