Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rossetti's Other Christmas Poems

Midwinter-blogging, essay 11 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Rossetti’s Other Christmas Poems

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their
famous Christmas tree.
Our modern Christmas was being born while Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was growing up.  She was ten when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol and 18 when a woodcut of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree went the Victorian version of viral—swiftly popularizing the Christmas tree throughout England and the States.  These two events were key in shaping the Christmas that we know and celebrate today.  The idea of Christmas as a family-centered holiday, complete with opportunities for organized gift-giving, began to take firm hold upon the public imagination.

The Rossetti family appears to have always enjoyed Christmas, mainly welcoming the occasion as a time for a quiet family reunion.  Rossetti’s Christmas poetry displays a genuine fondness for the holiday, even apart from its religious importance.  Around the same time she wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter,” she also wrote this charming little untitled verse:

Common Holly hears a berry
To make Christmas Robins merry: —
Golden Holly bears a rose,
Unfolding at October’s close
To cheer an old Friend’s eyes and nose.

Admittedly, Rossetti’s voluminous writings cover many Biblical topics, with the Christmas poetry only accounting for a relatively small percentage of the total.  In all, there are approximately 30 poems which feature strong Advent or Christmas themes.  Most are forgotten today, but two of them broke from the pack to become seasonal favorites.  Obviously one of these is our primary subject, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  The other is “Love Came Down At Christmas,” first published without a title in Rossetti’s book Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885) and later anthologized with the title “Christmastide” in 1893.


Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Sometime in the two decades following Rossetti’s death, someone set “Christmastide” to the Irish melody called “Gartan” and it made it into an alternative edition of the Episcopal Church’s hymnal, edited by the Rev. Dr. Charles Hutchins, in 1920.  While never achieving the wide popularity of its cousin “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it’s retained a secure place in hymnals for nearly a century.

Here’s one final favorite of mine, which showcases Rossetti’s enthusiasm for paradoxes.  “In the Bleak Midwinter” plays with the traditional Christian paradox of an infinite God present in a tiny baby.  Rossetti’s “Christmas Eve” finds a whole new set of paradoxes in the holiday:

“Christmas Eve”

CHRISTMAS hath darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

“Saint Columba Altarpiece,” central panel, circa 1455,
by Rogier van der Weyden, from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Music Room

Tine Thing Helseth plays an instrumental version of “In the Bleak Midwinter”…

... and Jars of Clay perform  “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price


  1. Awww thank you for sharing these. I trully love Rossetti's short Christmas poems especially the Christmas eve. Have a happy holidays!

  2. Thank you! "Christmas Eve" captures so much, succinctly and wittily. Rossetti is a pleasure to revisit. Wishing a joyous holiday season to you, too!