“The Actual Vision”: A Poet’s Wish for the Day After Christmas
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -- Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, And the children got ready for school. There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -- Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully -- To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. --WH Auden, from Christmas Oratorio
Christmas is the “most wonderful time of the year.” This is a quantifiable fact, and it holds true for religious and non-religious people alike. The month of December accounts for 30% of all charitable giving in the United States. We think more of other people, spend more time with our families, and express good wishes more during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year. And Christmas has been established, in rigorous peer-reviewed studies, to be the happiest day of the year.These aspects of Christmas are at the heart of W.H.Auden’s majestic Christmas oratorio
, “For the Time Being” (1942). Written in the dark time of World War II, this 1500 line poem tells the Christmas story through a series of dramatic monologues by its main figures—Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, Herod, and so on. The central theme of the story, unsurprisingly, is love—by which he means an enduring and overwhelming concern with the happiness of other people. This, for Auden, is the meaning of Christmas.
When the oratorio is over, Auden concludes with perhaps the saddest Christmas reflection I have ever read. The narrator of the story breaks in to tell us that it is all over and it is time to go back to our regularly scheduled lives. “Once again,” the poet laments, “we have seen the actual vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility.” After the powerful oratorio that we have just seen or read, these lines strike us as an unimaginable tragedy.
For all of its hyper-commercialized, consumerist kitschiness, the holiday season gives us a glimpse of true religion. It encourages us to think of each other a little more often and treat each other a little bit better than we do at other times of the year. The great tragedy is that we can’t sustain this level of other-centeredness without all of the props. Christmas summons what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” But when the season is over, our better angels end up in the same Christmas box as the Christmas ornaments and the Johnny Mathis CDs.
And this is a political tragedy as well as a personal one because we need these better angles so badly in our current political discourse. Our current political dysfunction is not the result of passionate disagreements. We are supposed to disagree passionately. Disagreement and compromise are the engines that drive our democracy.
But passionate disagreement—even among committed partisans—does not have to trump human connectedness. We can disagree with people and still feel a strong connection to them. We can love people on the other side of the political fence. We can be decent, compassionate, affectionate, and kind to people without compromising our political integrity.
The great lie that we hear in our media echo chambers is that we are supposed to hate the people who disagree with us. We must see them as traitors and criminals or as crazy, stupid, or evil.
But every December, we get a tiny glimpse of a world that works according to a different set of principles. This is what Auden calls “the actual vision.” It is not a seasonal affectation, but a better world that becomes available to us when we choose to live by the only rule it has—the rule that Christians refer to as “golden.”