The cultivation of Christmas trees

The publishing firm of Faber & Faber suspended its annual editions of holiday “Ariel poems” (in which T.S. Eliot’s series of “Ariel poems” first appeared) in 1931, but it revived the series briefly in the 1950s. In 1954, Eliot contributed one of his few occasional poems, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” to the resurrected project. It is, perhaps, the most charming of his holiday works, partaking of the conversational voice of the Four Quartets, which he completed 11 years before. And not merely is the voice echoed; the final lines of “Cultivation” recall the “In my beginning is my end” of “East Coker.” In “Cultivation,” Eliot can’t resist a little dig at himself, gently mocking his own “piety of the convert”:

Let [the child] continue in the spirit of wonder …
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children …

And far from sternly moralizing that Christmas is more about giving than receiving, Eliot’s happy to acknowledge the child’s “delight in new possessions / (Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell).”

Eliot’s light but moving poem deserves to be better known, especially at this time of year; it’s a lovely effort to recapture the childlike spirit of Christmas for all of us, and its concluding ambivalence is doubly touching. In 2013, Casey N. Cep did her part to spread the good news about “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in the Paris Review. She wrote:

Eliot invokes a distinctly Christian belief about the birth of Jesus and the return of Christ, moving deftly between Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the Second Coming, but he also conveys a more universal idea about the bond between life and death. The poem will hold special significance for those who share Eliot’s faith, but its appeal extends beyond those beliefs.

There are always beginnings and endings, springs and winters, whether those seasons call to mind the heavenly seasons of creation and restoration or only the human seasons of birth and death. The symbolism of evergreen trees predates Christianity, and the Christmas trees of Eliot’s poem have meaning beyond their religiosity. The cultivation in the poem’s title is not really of trees, but of persons. Joy is born naturally, but it requires tending if it is to last.

The poem follows:

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.