10 best Christmas poems: poetry to get you in the festive mood
Our roundup of the 10 best and most popular Christmas poems
Some of these Christmas poems are so famous they barely need introducing, others are better known for one or two much-quoted lines.
All deal with timeless themes that reach beyond the specificities of Christmas itself. Here are ten of our favourite Christmas poems, plucked from four centuries'-worth of poetry.
Best Christmas poems
A visit from St Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore
More commonly known as ‘Twas The Night before Christmas’, this 1823 poem was originally published anonymously: its author Clement Clarke Moore originally wrote it for his children, and, as an erudite professor in classical languages, apparently did not want to be associated with something so unscholarly.
However, such was its popularity, that he eventually admitted authorship. It is still among the most widely quoted American verses, and one that played a huge role in shaping popular notions of Santa Claus and his reindeer, thanks to the skill with which Moore evokes the Christmas Eve scene.
It has also been set to music several times, not least by Johnny Marks and the British child composer Alma Deutscher.
Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah
‘Let dem eat cake an let dem partake / In a plate of organic grown beans,’ so goes this off-beat, socially-conscious poem in which the British Jamaican Benjamin Zephaniah fights the Christmas turkey’s corner.
Born in the Birmingham suburb of Handsworth, Zephaniah went through several schools before being expelled at 13. By then, however, he was already gaining a foothold as a dub poet, reading his poems in local churches and becoming well known among the local black Caribbean community.
‘Talking Turkeys’, the book to which this poem gave its name, was his first collection of poetry, published shortly after Zephaniah released from prison at the age of 22. It’s a great demonstration of the way Zephaniah manages to convey serious messages to children and young people without compromising on charm or humour.
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The Oxen by Thomas Hardy
It’s easy to forget that, in spite of the great novels he wrote, Thomas Hardy thought of himself primarily as a poet, and wrote more than 1000 poems.
This one, published on Christmas Eve 1915 in The Times, relates to the West Country legend that on the anniversary of Christ’s Nativity (ie Christmas Day), farm animals kneel in their stalls in homage.
It’s a poignant poem from an author who lost his religious faith early in life, reflecting a longing for childhood certainties and beliefs that Hardy himself no longer held.
Among the many composers who have set this poem are Gerald Finzi, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.
Christmas by John Betjeman
Though Betjeman struggled with religious doubt, he was nonetheless a committed Anglican, and this poem is an expression of his piety - delivered with plenty of cosy imagery and humour.
Satirising the superficiality of the modern world, where spirituality has been supplanted by ‘sweet and silly Christmas things’, it goes on to point out that the meaning of Christmas is a religious one and that the things we love about Christmas are part of something more profound than ‘tissued fripperies.’ For all its curmudgeonliness, it is hugely uplifting.
In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti
Although most of us know it as a Christmas carol, thanks to the composer Gustav Holst, Christina Rossetti's text, which was published in the magazine Scribner's Monthly in January 1872, stands as a poem in its own right.
Throughout her life, Rossetti, who rejected two different suitors on religious grounds, was sustained by her devotion to the Anglo-Catholic movement. And 'In the Bleak Midwinter', whose solemnity sets it apart from other Christmas texts, is an expression of that devotion, focusing on the reverence of those who came to pay homage to Christ on the day of his birth. Rossetti apparently earned £10 for the poem, which is quite a lot by today's standards.
We named 'In the Bleak Midwinter' as one of the best Christmas carols of all time
The Christmas Rose by Cecil Day-Lewis
The place of Cecil Day-Lewis - father of the Hollywood star Daniel - in history is a curious one: though relatively rarely spoken of nowadays, in his lifetime he was part of W.H Auden's literary circle, serving as Poet Laureate from 1968 to 1972.
This 1962 poem showcases his rather traditional style of lyricism, focusing on the light and hope that is associated with Christmas.
A Christmas Poem by Wendy Cope
'And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful if you're single.' With her acid final line, Wendy Cope turns this 1992 poem on its head, transforming what appeared to be a sentimental little rhyme about festive cheer into a pronouncement on the loneliness that Christmas can bring for some.
That's typical of Cope, who ranks amongst the wittiest of contemporary English poets and who often portrays the mundane, everyday aspects of life in a way that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.
Ring out Wild Bells by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Taken from the elegy 'In Memoriam', this poem was written in tribute to Tennyson's sister's fiancé Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly at the age of 22. It depicts the poet overcoming his grief and regaining his optimism to the sounds of the church bells, ringing in the new year. As such it has come to symbolise hope for the future.
It has also been set many times to music, not least by the composers Charles Gounod, August Read Thomas and Jonathan Dove, as well as by George Harrison, who used excerpts of it in his song 'Ding Dong, Ding Dong.'
Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot
Apparently written all in one go after church one Sunday morning, under the influence of half a bottle of gin, this dramatic monologue of 1927 followed Eliot's conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.
Told from the perspective of one of the magi, it is a rather pessimistic poem, expressing themes of alienation and powerlessness in a changing world. Some critics believed that the addition of Christian themes was detrimental to Eliot's poetry. That, however, has not stopped this poem from ranking among the nation's favourite poems.
Nor did it stop Benjamin Britten from using it as the basis for his fourth Piano Canticle, written for his closest musical colleagues: the countertenor James Bowman, tenor Peter Pears and baritone John Shirley-Quirk.
On the Morning of Christ's Nativity by John Milton
This long, celebratory poem, written in December 1629 when Milton was in his early twenties, is one of the earliest displays of Milton's genius, laying out his reflections on Christ's place and role in a sinful world. Among its musical interpreters are the English composers Cyril Rootham and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the latter of whom set portions of the text in his Christmas cantata, Hodie.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.