This short poem by Alasdair Livingstone (Christina Vaughan’s Dad) is not a cuddly-baby Christmas poem. It is raw, real and not at all sentimental.
It is an attempt to catch the reality of the scene on the day of Jesus’ birth. Written in free-verse, requiring rhythm but no fixed metre or rhyme. Enjoy and contemplate.
Straw in the feeding-trough.
The baby is warmed by the cow’s hot breath,
As she looks for her food.
He is at peace, wrapped in his swaddling bands.
Straw on the earthen floor also,
Where the young mother lies curled up,
Recovering from her pains.
The ass is weary, for she has carried the peasant girl
Three days from a northern town;
Her breath is steam in the cold air.
The father watches anxiously, and there is blood.
Where is the after-birth? The dogs are sniffing round.
So can this be the long-awaited prince?
This cow-byre is no palace — a ramshackle shed,
A place of dirt and flies and cobwebs,
Where the swallow makes her nest under the eaves,
And hens and sparrows peck around for fallen grains.
Where is the royal midwife?
Where are the fawning courtiers in purple robes?
Where is the inquisitive crowd?
There are none. This is no place for princes to be born.
Can you believe the shepherds,
Who say they saw an angel-host and were told
To look for a babe in swaddling clothes lying in a manger?
He was indeed the Saviour, the Anointed One, they said.
Well — a jug of wine to keep them warm on a cold night
Might well have turned their minds to wayward dreams.
But they were certain: all told the same tale.
And see, some visitors of quite another kind
Are searching also.
The crowds have gone now from the small town
Where all the lineage of King David came for registry at Rome’s command.
So now the babe is lodged in a townsman’s home.
This is no palace either, but a lowly house
Between the synagogue and a crumbling fort.
The travellers are kingly Chaldean priests bearing rich gifts.
They were compelled by potent star-signs, so they say,
To travel west, as the star-sign led them,
And find the new-born king of the Jews, and do him homage.
And so they do. They bow down before the infant king
Acknowledging his power and coming reign.
The parents welcome them and take the gifts
With gratitude, but without astonishment,
As though they expected such a thing.
And now, strange things occur. The wise men from the east
Were warned in a dream to escape from Herod’s country,
For he was furious with them.
He had hoped they would betray the prince’s presence —
And he would brook no rival to his power.
The child’s life was at risk.
And Joseph too (that was the father’s name)
Had seen an angel in a dream, who told him
To take his wife and child, and flee to Egypt,
For Herod would search out the child and kill him.
Too soon the patient ass must bear her load again.
And there in Egypt is the family still.
When they return — and I am sure they will,
For sure it is that God’s hand was at work
Within these strange events —
Child of a carpenter and a peasant girl,
What sort of kingdom will be his?
They call him Son of David,
But he will not live with concubines and queens.
He will not save the world by force of arms.
He will not build up palaces and forts,
Nor parade with finely-garbed heralds blowing on trumpets,
Nor minstrel-girls with tambours and flutes,
Nor armies on horseback bearing swords and spears.
Is he the servant told of by the prophet,
Who is the sin-bearer of the world
And will save by suffering, not by wars?
So I believe. And I rejoice.