The Timelessness of Christmas Away From Home: Rudyard Kipling's "Christmas in India"
Dim dawn behind the tamarisks—the sky is saffron-yellow—
The beautiful opening lines to Rudyard Kipling’s “Christmas in India” (1886) contrast with the sardonic and bitter tone of the piece, a reflection on spending the holidays in a foreign land.
Link to entire poem: http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_christmas.htm
Kipling knew something about being away from one’s home during Christmas. Born in British India in 1865, he spent much of his formative years in that region. As an expat, Kipling knew something of the alienation and isolation of living in a foreign country, and how those feelings can intensify during the time of year associated with celebrating with friends and family.
The poem begins with imagery of late 19th century colonial India, but it might as well be Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other region where Westerners have chosen to spend long portions of their lives. Kipling highlights the irony of celebrating Christmas along with his fellow expats against the backdrop of such an exotic locale. His century-old observations are reminiscent of many a holiday dinner held in some Forward Operating Base in some dusty 21st Century war theater. A little Yuletide pageant in a fortified bubble of Western civilization in the midst of an alien culture that heralds from a more ancient period in history.
Kipling reflects with a touch of bitterness on the people back home who will remember him briefly and then forget him completely in the midst of their own celebrations. He indulges in some self-pity for a minute before turning the focus of the piece squarely around and laying the responsibility firmly on his own shoulders. In what are the most devastating lines of the poem, he reflects:
Youth was cheap—wherefore we sold it
Gold was good—we hoped to hold it.
And to-day we know the fulness of our gain!
And there’s the rub, especially for those of us present-day ex-mil types who resumed our overseas deployments. The allure of money in foreign lands is strong, but there’s a price to be paid with these ventures, and Kipling nails it. We, the expats, are “shackled in a lifelong tether.” India, depicted as a “grim Stepmother” looms, bedecked in “ancient tattered raiment” dragging “us back howe’er so far we roam." It’s India he’s speaking of, but it might as well be Iraq with the Sumerian Ishtar goddess rising out of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates...or Afghanistan or Vietnam or Colonial Africa or the New World... Turn back the pages, the story is still the same.
Hard her service, poor her payment.
There may be riches to be had in war or colonialism or imperialism or nation-building, but there are other prices to be paid.
If a year of life be lent her, if her temple’s shrine we enter
The door is shut—we may not look behind.
It’s our lives we are ultimately offering in exchange for these material rewards, specifically the special moments within our lives that give them meaning, such as the times spent with family and friends in celebration and love.
Like a grim clock striking the hour, Kipling’s tamarisks mark the progression of the Christmas day at the beginning of each stanza:
Dim dawn behind the tamarisks...
Full day behind the tamarisks...
High noon...Grey dusk…Black night behind the tamarisks...
The litany of these opening lines highlights the inexorable progression of time, the eternal loss of those precious moments we never had, the times we can never get back with our families, while we stumble forward with the artifice of our contrived rituals, absurdly out of place in these foreign lands and cultures.
Kipling ends the poem with a hoot of sarcasm: “Let’s honor, o my brother, Christmas day.” We might as well make as merry as we can, he concludes, because even if our laughter is "forced" and "faint," we are at least the richer for mocking the progression of one more Christmas.
It is truly a bitter poem for a season that is supposed to be sweet.
And, yet, despite all his sarcasm and bitterness at wasted youth, he has evoked the tamarisks five full times. Perhaps he meant the repetition to be like the grim drumbeat of a funeral cadence, but it also can be interpreted as a chant, a prayer, or a mantra.
We are left with the imagery of Kipling’s final stanza: The tamarisks are invisible now in the dark, enveloped in Kipling’s winter evening of chorusing owls and trumpeting temple conches…they might as well be half a world away. Yet, they exist and even though we can no longer see them, we can envision them, and we can almost smell their scent in that Christmas night in India so long ago.
Image by Dinesh Valke from Thane, India (Tamarix indica) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons