“A Christmas Childhood” by Patrick Kavanagh explores the concept of childhood, growing up, and leaving behind warm memories. The poem is from the perspective of an adult, who is reminiscing about the wonderful childhood he had spent.
The poem can be traced back to Kavanagh’s solitary years spent in a flat in Dublin, during which he began to be fascinated with the concept of childhood and the innocence experienced during that time. This poem is his all-time famous and one of his most quoted poems to date.
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The poem begins with the poet reminiscing about his childhood and the Christmas spent in his early years. The imagery is seen with a rose-coloured tint and there is a sense of fantasy and wonder in his recollection. Childhood is a dreamland that is composed solely of the most beautiful of things. Even the smallest things take on a magical connotation once in the realm of childhood memories.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me.
The realm of childhood is compared to the Biblical Garden of Eden, where everything is blessed and beautiful. The light is the light that shines from Heaven above. Through a child’s eyes, this light transforms into a magical illumination. The poet then talks about the apple tree which tells the story of Adam and Eve, which foreshadows the poem. Childhood innocence is where the poet was residing when Eve, in the form of the world, tempted him. This represents crossing the threshold of childhood into puberty and finally adulthood.
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again.
The poet is confessing that now he has exited that garden of childhood, there is an awareness of mortality and death. Like Adam and Eve, the knowledge of the world he gained has tainted him. Only sometimes is he able to recollect the memories of his childhood, but that doesn’t bring it back.
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
The poet has moved from his current times again into the memories of childhood. Of how even the “common sights” of cattle and stones were a source of wonder and enjoyment to him as a child. The beauty seen through the eyes of a wondrous child is not tainted by the world. These sights are not easy to come by as an adult.
My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
The poet is recollecting how his father used to play the small instrument, melodeon, outside their gate. This small act of music inspired magic in the child. To this child, the stars in the morning sky seemed to be dancing to his father’s tune. The personification of the stars lends a certain sense of enchantment and fantasy to the poem, which enhances the magical aspects of his childhood memories.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
By naming other families, the poet is pointing out the effect his father’s music had on the people around them. The poet is then inwardly reflecting, as he pulls on his trousers, which tell that the child is now ready to go out and explore the world. There is a sense of mystery to him.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
The poem has religious imagery and it is also reflected strongly in this verse. The poet goes outside and sees his mother milking the cows. This also holds a certain sense of wonder and enchantment, as his child vision is filled with magic for every little action he witnesses. To a child, every little thing holds magic, beauty and purpose. The lamp is compared to the Star of Bethlehem and the stable holds a special meaning, considering Jesus is also said to be born under this star in such a stable.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
The poem takes a turn and involves sounds from the scenery of childhood. Even the harsh sounds are providing a sense of adventure and exploration to the child. There is a juxtaposition of the sounds from the bog, pot-holes, and forges, with the sounds from a peaceful Mass.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
The poet is reminiscing and saying how even as a child, there was a poet inside him, who saw the beauty in the world. The snow-covered town and the time of Christmas made everything more magical.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
The poet recalls seeing the constellation Cassiopeia in the sky. And the whin bushes, the yellow flowers, peeking through the snow on the horizon, looked like the Three Wise Kings to the child. The child’s imagination conjured up religious, beautiful imagery out of a common sight.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion’; I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
However, the comments of an old passer-by slightly push the child towards the future he is in now. The comment about his father’s skills put a twist on the magical wonder that the music lends to the child. However, he is still hiding, meaning as he is being introduced to the world of adults, there is still time.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
there was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
The poet here is positioning his childhood and his adulthood side by side by using the knives as objects. The penknife for a child to nick things, and the small knife that he would later use to cut up tobacco. And then the poet comments that he was six years of age, where Christmas and not his birthday is being used to count his years. This is how significant Christmas was to the poet as a child.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
In the final verse of the poem, the poet goes back to reminiscing about more childhood memories. The time of his life is enveloped by the music of his father’s melodeon and his mother milking the cows. The poem ends on a religious and spiritual note.
The poem is interspersed with vivid and striking imagery, which enhances and evokes powerful memories of childhood, even if the details aren’t the same. The fact that children experience the world in a more beautiful manner, and that wonder and joy fades when one grows up lends a melancholy tone to the poem. The poet is looking back on the delightful events of childhood and how every little action was woven with magic.
There is also heavy Biblical imagery in the poem, which makes sense as the poet is reminiscing about Christmas time. The descriptions from the story of Christmas are magical and this is reflected in the child’s daily life and his anticipation for Christmas. The story has a powerful impact on the child, as it unfolds in front of his eyes through the landscape. This miraculous journey of Christmas is seen through a child’s eyes and that is what the poet is attempting to evoke. The child is excited upon waking up and finding a present on Christmas morning.
However, the poet is also bemoaning the lost nature of childhood, that the innocence of a child does not last forever. As a person grows up and becomes an adult, there is not much that can inspire such childlike wonder in him. The poet collates the act of acquiring worldly knowledge with Eve biting into the apple. The temptation of the world takes away childhood innocence and casts the poet out of the Garden. The sense of wonder is lost as a child crosses the threshold into adulthood. The poet is lamenting the fact that he can never truly return to the magical lands of childhood and experience those events again, only drudge up the memories that also seem to fade like stars in the morning. One can only imagine and recollect childhood memories but never live them again. Seeing how the poet wrote this poem while living alone in a cold city, this poem takes on a gloomy and sad note.
However, Christmas presents the poet with a time to live the energy of childhood. The time of this festival becomes a place for the poet to momentarily submerge within the wondrous time of childhood. Christmas then becomes the temporary Garden of Eden for the poet to indulge in child-like fantasies again. Adulthood has taken away the joy from life, but Christmas is one time when magic seems entirely possible once more.
In a child’s eyes, everything is in harmony. The close-knit family and community is also significant aspect of the poet’s life. The poem is juxtaposing the two events with each other, one is the poet’s childhood, and one is Christ’s birth. Even though they are chronologically far apart, on Christmas, they come together to form a magical time for a child, and in turn, influence the poet in his adulthood. At Patrick Kavanagh’s funeral in 1967, Seamus Heaney read ‘A Christmas Childhood’ at his graveside.