Wednesday 23 December 2020

Christmas Trees

 Here is a poem called 'Christmas Trees'. You might expect it to be a Christmas poem, or at least a poem about Christmas trees – but the author is Geoffrey Hill, and nothing is that simple with him. The 'Christmas trees' here are the green incandescent flares dropped by Allied bombers to illuminate their target area preparatory to bombing a German city. Those on the ground awaiting the onslaught nicknamed them, with macabre gaiety, 'Christmas trees'. 

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

The term 'Christmas trees' probably originated with the bombing of Würzburg, a town which, in proportion to its size, suffered more death and destruction than even Dresden. A few weeks after the bombing of Würzburg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for his unflinching Christian opposition to Hitler and all his works; and a few weeks after that, victory over Hitler was finally achieved. 
Bonhoeffer has another beautiful poetical tribute in Auden's 'Friday's Child' (In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer):

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.


  1. I first learnt of Bonhoeffer from BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives, whose guest, somewhat implausibly, was singer and actor David Soul, of Starsky and Hutch fame.

    Bonhoeffer’s execution was ordered a long way up the Nazi High Command and hence was especially brutal and degrading - he and his brother and brother-in-law were obliged to strip completely naked before being hung by piano wire. This episode - among many others - may in part explain why US Army master sergeant John Woods, a man with an otherwise unblemished and lengthy track record as a hangman, was unaccountably off his game when executing senior Nazis in the wake of the Nuremberg trials. He miscalculated the required length of rope, with the result that many of his charges were left, er, hanging, death by strangulation taking several minutes.

  2. It is a terrible story, a true modern martyrdom. Sadly there have been many more, largely unnoticed, since.