The recurrent theme of Christmas in Rudyard Kipling's work
PUBLISHED: 09:49 16 December 2015 | UPDATED: 14:47 07 November 2018
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rudyard Kipling's birth, Steve Roberts examines the recurrent theme of Christmas in his work
“And at Home they’re making merry ’neath the white and scarlet berry.” That’s a lovely line, written by a man who knew what it was to spend Christmas far from home. Rudyard Kipling was born 150 years ago in December in far-off Mumbai, the son of a school principal and author. “As at home the Christmas Day is breaking wan … let us feast with friends and neighbours, And be merry as the custom of our caste.” Far away, with Christmas ending as Christmas dawned elsewhere, Kipling was immersed in festivities, in spite of unseasonably hot weather and an absence of mistletoe and holly.
This poem was first published on Christmas Eve 1886, when Kipling would have been aged just 20. It is a poignant narrative on exiles ‘enjoying’ their Christmas far from home and in a totally alien climate. It may be different to feel the warmth of the sub-continent (or indeed enjoy a barbecue on Bondi Beach), but surely there is nothing to compare with a crisp morning, crackling fire and the holly berries contrasting with the frost on the ground.
Kipling wrote about Christmas a lot; perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder. There are subliminal messages in there that have to be sought out. In Eddi’s Service (AD. 687) the eponymous priest is putting on a midnight service, but alas, no one attends, for, “the Saxons were keeping Christmas and the night was stormy as well.” With just an ox and ass for company, Eddi told the ox of, “a Manger and a Stall in Bethlehem, and he spoke to the Ass of a Rider, That rode to Jerusalem.” Not everything Kipling wrote about Christmas was unequivocally complimentary: people you wouldn’t hear from for another year; folk too busy ‘celebrating’ to attend a service. Kipling could have been writing in our time.
Kipling’s Christmas in India has appeared in an online Top 20 of Christmas poems. He did spend much of his childhood in England, so had the traditional Christmas in heart and mind when he wrote of it. Kipling was six when he was sent back to England, along with his three-year-old sister. The arts loomed large, for Kipling’s maternal aunt was married to the famous artist Edward Burne-Jones and the two youngsters spent their Christmases (a full month) with the B-Js until Kipling was 12, stays which Kipling referred to as “paradise’” His parents meanwhile remained in India. It would be those seasonal holidays that would live long in the memory.
Returning to India in his teens, those childhood memories never left him and influenced much of what he wrote, output that was good enough to win him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English language writer to receive the accolade and its youngest recipient to date (he was 41).
In William the Conqueror (part II), published in January 1896, a decade after Christmas in India, Kipling wrote of hidden voices breaking into Good King Wenceslas, a further reminder of English Christmases past, but the story was bittersweet, reflecting as it did on famines in southern India, yet finishing with a Christmas ball that could have been lifted straight from any English country house. Those contrasts pull at the heart-strings; Christmas has never been unmitigated fun for all.
Perhaps, appropriately, as a man who extolled Empire and lived and worked in India, it would be Kipling who would help write the first Christmas speech, broadcast by King George V in 1932. The speech talked up the Empire and the union of all its peoples. “Through one of the marvels of modern Science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire.” The speech was widely applauded for its majestic words and has been held to be one of the great speeches of the 20th century. It was actually the Prime Minister of the time, Ramsay MacDonald, who suggested to the King that Kipling would write a good speech. It was a shame that the writer and his ilk didn’t get the ‘contract’ to continue penning these speeches.
Kipling wrote about Christmas from the heart and his themes are enduring; the yearning for home; the things we associate with that time; the need to be with those we love. In a case of mistaken identity he’s also been credited with one Christmas recitation he didn’t write. In the Workhouse – Christmas Day was actually written in 1879 by George R Sims, a campaigning journalist, but Kipling would have appreciated its description of “bare walls … bright with garlands of green and holly.” It is also untrue that Rudyard Kipling was the inspiration for “exceedingly good cakes”, although he may well have enjoyed one, particularly over the festive season when traditional Christmas cake and yule log come to the fore. One can imagine him, during those month-long sojourns in the B-J household, engaging in conspicuous consumption and putting on the odd pound or two.
Kipling clearly had the ear of politicians as his Christmas of 1924 were spent with the Baldwins at Astley, Stanley Baldwin being the then Prime Minister, albeit Baldwin was Kipling’s first cousin. In fact, Kipling seemed to have the happy knack of being invited somewhere for Christmas (always a good ruse I think). The 1920s saw Kipling spend Christmases in Paris, Torquay and Bath, always with friends.
Of course, Kipling was happiest in Sussex. He moved here from Devon when in his early 30s and spent the rest of his life in the county, living firstly in Rottingdean then, from 1902, at Bateman’s which would be his home for the rest of his days. National Trust Visitor Services Manager for Bateman’s Fiona Hancock encourages people to, “Step back in time and experience the magic of a Kipling family Christmas. It’s a great way to start the festive season and create some lovely memories.”
In a 1995 poll, Kipling’s If-, which my late father-in-law knew off by heart, was voted the UK’s favourite poem. Can any writer really do any better? “And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, Kipling wrote all about it, and there’s nought as good as that.
10 facts about Kipling
• Kipling was named ‘Rudyard’ after the spot where his parents courted (Rudyard Lake, Staffs).
• As a boy Kipling attended the United Services College at Westward Ho! In Devon.
• It was decided Kipling lacked the ability to get into Oxford University on a scholarship.
• Kipling worked as a journalist on the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette.
• He returned to England in 1889, initially settling in London.
• Kipling was never too happy as a novelist, his first attempt, The Light that failed (1890), not altogether successful.
• He married Caroline Balestier, the sister of an American author-publisher, in 1892, proposing to her rather unromantically by telegram.
• A stay in the in-laws’ Vermont was a disaster as Kipling couldn’t get on with in-laws or locals.
• Kipling had three children, two daughters and son John, killed in the Battle of Loos (1915), aged 18.
• Kipling’s reputation has suffered due to the retreat from Empire; he was a great colonialist.