By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the New York Times Magazine, December 23, 1984. Published in a limited edition in 1986 by William B. Ewert with woodcuts by Mary Azarian. Reprinted in The Time Traveler: Poems.
Christmas: The House Adrift in a wide white ocean of snow.
Black December is a ditch winking overhead,
but here beneath your parents’ roof the piecrust faces
are dimpled by forks
and the clock faces are round and smooth as buttons.
This is the season of waiting and of expectation
and of hunger keenly roused to be satisfied.
This is the season of the miraculous birth,
the oldest story,
the fresh-trimmed spruce bristling to the ceiling,
smelling of cold, of night, of forests wild and tamed
as forests in a child’s picture book.
The splendid tree is balanced in a shallow tin of water
looking as if it would live forever—
and such tinsel, such trinkets ablaze
on the boughs, a glass-glitter
of icicles, angel’s hair,
strings of colored lights plugged to a socket!
And beneath the tree presents wrapped in shiny paper,
satiny bows, gifts heaped upon gifts—
a child’s fever-dream spilled on the carpet
Outside, snow flying like white horses’ manes and tails;
inside cookies that are stars, hearts, diamonds,
the smell of a turkey roasting slow in its fat.
There are stories children are not told,
of grandmothers dying in secret of their hearts
or of cancer shopping for months for this season—
the costly boxed gifts that are love, the stiff silver paper
that is love, all the effort of joy, love—
torn open too quickly by a child’s fingers.
And there suddenly is your father,
entering the kitchen, the wind behind him,
snow melting in his wild dark hair,
a carton of presents in his arms.
From what and to what could this world be redeemed?
is not a child’s question.
You are sitting at the long table with the others.
Those years. The roof weighted with snow. Candle flames,
the smell of red wax, O take and eat; the clock tells
its small rounded time again
and again, again—
this is all there is and this is everything.
The miraculous birth is your own.