Paul Durcan’s book-length poem Christmas Day is one that I re-read every year. It was a favourite of my father’s and has become a favourite of mine, probably due to the fact that it is the antithesis of all the Christmas cheer that is forced upon us at this time of year.
Christmas Day, or ‘the Feast of St Loneliness’ as Durcan calls it, will appeal to those who seek a bit more realism in their Christmas reading, or those who have ever spent Christmas alone.
In the poem, Durcan muses on the festive season in general and in particular on a Christmas Day that he was anticipating spending alone. A kind invitation from his bachelor friend Frank offers company for the dreaded day and provides Durcan with an insight into what it is that is actually important at this time of year.
His inviting me out of the blue
Was a shock to the system.
I expected him to say ‘If I don’t see you before Christmas Day,
I’ll see you after Christmas Day.’
As Christmas Day approaches, memories of years past come flooding back to Durcan, along with a musing on the religious habits that are ingrained in him and how it is that he has come to be alone at a time when family is the star on the top of the tree. He listens to Christmas Mass on the radio, reciting the incantations along with the unseen congregation. He wonders at how he can’t pass a church without blessing himself and holds his father’s rosary beads, the only object he now has to remember him by.
Objects encourage reminiscence, of his father, old lovers and his travels. He wonders how people in the other countries that he has travelled to are celebrating Christmas. His reawakened memories are like little gifts to the reader, twinkling lights exploring the importance of the everyday, the joy in the simple things in life. In essence, the true spirit of Christmas.
Lonely as he may be, Durcan’s writing is not self-pitying. He walks the streets of Dublin, looking in other people’s windows and marveling at how the menorah has become a symbol of Christmas.
Christmas is the Feast of St Loneliness.
I street-walk at night
Looking in the windows
Of other people’s houses
Assessing their Christmas decorations,
Marking them out of ten.
As Paul and Frank share Christmas in Frank’s flat, the poem becomes a funny, melancholy and unflinching conversation between the two men. They bring each other gifts, skip Mass, eat, drink and reminisce about women. They commiserate on the particular affliction of being a poet.
Two men of no property
Do men rate
Who have no real estate?
The humour here is sweetly maudlin, the lyric self-questioning and confessional and yet, the poem has real power to uplift. Christmas Day is a reminder that at the heart of the festive season, what matters is not the gifts nor the decorations, but compassion, friendship and remembrance.
The poem is bookended with a biblical verse from Isaiah –
No longer are you to be named ‘Forsaken’,
nor your land ‘Abandoned’,
but you shall be called ‘My Delight’
and your land ‘The Wedded’.
Durcan is suggesting that no matter how alone we may feel a Christmas, there is still the possibility that we will be wedded, by memory, by love and by friendship.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!