A Verse for Christmas

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

From In the Bleak Midwinter by Chris­ti­na Ros­set­ti.


  1. Behold the condescenscion of God!

    I have been reflecting this Christmas about the power of the Christmas myth, particularly as I attend various carol services with people who do not necessarily believe. Myths have power, I suppose, but let us eavesdrop on Tolkien and Lewis who spoke together in Oxford one night in 1931:

    “Myths are lies,” Lewis said that night.

    “Myths are not lies,” Tolkien countered, among the swaying trees of Magdalen Grove. “The myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light. The Christ story functions as a myth, just like the Scandinavian myths, with one difference: The Christian myth is true.

    This I believe.

  2. Thanks for sharing the poem. I hadn’t seen it before.

  3. Larry the cable guy says:

    This song is on our program on Sunday.

    Beautiful, as so many of them are at this season.

  4. This poem is my favorite Christmas verse–I posted it on my own blog last year. The music it has been set to is also quite good. One of the better carols, too bad it is somewhat obscure.

  5. Music by Holst.

  6. What a beautifully concise message. Thanks.

  7. I have always appreciated Rossetti’s sonnets, I had forgotten about this one. Thanks Ronan. I also love the exchange between Tolkien and Lewis. Beautiful stuff.

  8. I just bought the classic series, The Power of the Myth for my husband’s Christmas present. I can hardly wait to watch it myself, and learn more about it.

    Thanks for a beautiful poem.

  9. Ronan–the Holst setting is the best, of course, but the one by Harold Darke is quite nice, too.

  10. I love this poem; I sang this at the ward Christmas party (one version, anyway).

  11. Amen, Kristine. Ronan, if you don’t know the Darke setting, you really should check it out. I’d even say it’s, well, better than the Holst (at least it suits the text better, in my opinion).

  12. Karl Kategianes says:

    The Harold Darke setting rules!

  13. Concerning #1, Tolkein and Lewis. I have to say that I found this conversation between great minds to be the opposite of profound. Lewis’s (preconversion) rejectionist statement “myths are lies” is obviously deliberately obtuse, since this conversation echoes a traditional dialogue with between the unlearned disciple and the wise philosopher/sage. It seems clear that the atheism Lewis ultimately rejected was the pure (and juvenile) variety that condemns both babies and bathwater.

    How sad though that the philosopher/sage in the above dialogue is so similarly obtuse. On the threshold of expounding a great truth about the power and vitality of myth in our cultures and our lives, Tolkein indicates that he unwittingly agrees with Lewis that myths are lies! If, in his paternalistic ethnocentrism, Tolkein cannot shine his own intellect on the Christ myth and understand it for what it is, he illustrates that he does think that all other myths are not true. Simultaneously, by being so deeply in error about the Christ myth, he robs it of its true power — which is the same profound power it shares with other myths. Very sad.

  14. he illustrates that he does think that all other myths are not true

    I don’t think this is a very charitable reading of Tolkien. Certainly he thought the Christian myth was “true” in a way that other myths were not (I wouldn’t think this to be controversial in these parts), he was nonetheless a believer in the power of myth per se. Lewis, after his conversion, adopted a similar position.

  15. I agree with Jacob, John. Tolkien is not saying that the Norse myths are not true in the sense that you say; rather, that the Christian myth has the advantage of having actually happened. Now, that may offend Odinists and relativists, but it’s a pretty uncontroversial Christian belief and you can’t blame a Christian for taking solace in it at Christmas.

  16. For me Tolkien will always be the man who wanted to take Father out of Christmas.

  17. Is there any where online that a person could listen to this with either of the settings referenced? This is the first time I have heard of it and would really enjoy being able to listen to the musical version.

  18. I would find it surprising if either Lewis or Tolkein did not understand the power of myth–both being some of the greatest myth-makers of the 20th century and both scholars of Anglo-Saxon mythological world. I think the story is meant to reflect their sense of faith in the things they thought reflected a deeper reality, as Ronan said.

    I also think the story was told years later after the event and reflects their attempt to highlight the power of Lewis conversion, rather than anything they really thought at the time. I have a hard time imagining that such a thorough reader of George McDonald would use the language ‘Myths are lies.’ Lewis was a far better thinker that that, if he really said it, I don’t think he meant it.

    And Tolkien in On Fairy Stories seems to hold to a broader view of Christian truth than reflected in the quote.

    The above quote serves as a nice Myth about two flawed heroes who teach us the power of Christmas stories.

  19. Nora, here’s Holst and here’s Darke.

  20. Thank you, Bill. Those were just lovely.

  21. I don’t blame Christians for thinking that their myth is “true.” More power to you, you’re just as entitled and just as advanced as the folks who had fervent faith in Odin. However, I think that your belief that a particular myth is true means that you don’t believe that the other myths are likewise true; which is functionally the same as dismissing them the way Lewis did.

  22. Meems: I love that Power of Myth series. My husband and I watched it all night while I was in labor with my third kid, and the nurse thought we must be bored out of our minds. We loved it.

  23. John,

    That is just poppycock. If Lewis believed myths to be true in every sense that you believe myths to be true, then you cannot, with credibility, claim that he dismissed them. The fact that he believes something additional about one particular myth does not imply that he dismisses all other myths. It is not “functionally the same.”

    If you think Christians are fools and simpletons for believing the Christian myth is not only myth but also actually happened, that is perfectly within your right and I can understand it. But how are you justified in criticizing Lewis and Tolkien for not believing other myths are literally true when you are, in this very thread, taking the position that none of the myths are functionally true. By saying the Christian myth didn’t really happen, does that mean you are functionally dismissing the Christian myth? Of course not. Do you think there is some moral high ground for someone who denies the truth of all myths that is unattainable for someone who believes one of the myths is both a myth and more? On what grounds?