My late husband and I lived in Malta from April 2005 to May 2006, returning once or twice a year nearly every year thereafter until the pandemic struck. I wrote the three poems below—all three based on Maltese Christmas legends—in celebration of our first Maltese Christmas.
WHY WE PUT TINSEL ON THE TREE
For the first line of “Why We Put Tinsel on the Tree,” I went to the phone book (in 2005, there were still phone books). Abela was one of the first Maltese names in the phone book; Zarb was one of the last. In other words, the woman of the poem could be any woman from A to Z, a kind of Maltese Everywoman.
The poem tells the story of a woman cleaning her house in preparation for the coming Christ Child. The spiders, however, are angry that she’s swept their webs away, so they spin them in revenge in her Christmas tree. When the Christ Child comes, he honours the work of both the woman and the spiders, turning the webs into something beautiful.
In this legend, the Christ Child comes to the house as the Prince of Peace, the Christ in whose kingdom a wolf lies down with a lamb and a housewife learns to live with the spiders under her stairs.
Why We Put Tinsel on the Tree
Mrs. Abela or Mrs. Zarb—
one or the other—trained a broom
on a corner and beat it blameless.
No cobwebbed hearth for the coming Christ!
The spiders scowled beneath the stairs.
But while she slept, the spiders danced
among the boughs, spun subtle silk
in the Christmas tree. The Christ Child came,
small and still in the secret night.
Spiders, spiders, what shall we do?
Your webs will grieve the woman greatly.
So he touched them, turning them to light.
HOW THE ROBIN GOT ITS RED BREAST
Before the Three Kings, before the Shepherds, there were animals—an ox and an ass—who bore first witness to the birth of Jesus. Art remembers them. They’re in every painting, every crèche. Poetry remembers them, too. Sometimes seriously.
O magnam mysterium, for example, is a lovely Latin text whose first verse in translation reads: O great mystery / and wondrous sacrament, / that animals should see / the newborn Lord / lying in a manger.
In legend and story, animals aren’t just present at Jesus’s birth. In legend and story, one of the miracles of that miraculous night is that God allows them to understand it. It’s one of the reasons C. S. Lewis gives animals speech in his Chronicles of Narnia. The animals knew Jesus first. The robin of this legend, this poem, is one of them.
I like to imagine that every robin after the robin of this legend—every robin we’ll see in our cold, late spring—bears not only that robin’s first red breast but also its memory and miraculous understanding of the birth.
How the Robin Got Its Red Breast
A sacrament—that speechless beasts
should be the first to wonder at
the birth. But in the bitter night,
when Mary bade the ox to fan
the fading flame with its warm breath,
its dim eyes closed in sleep. The ass
slept, too. The robin fixed its eye,
bead-bright, on the expiring embers,
blew to no effect—too sight—
then leaned its breast against the coals
and sang them into light. The waning
fire leapt up. Its blood-orange breast
a testament to burning passion,
WHY THERE’S A BLACKSMITH IN THE CRIB
There’s a crib in every Maltese home at Christmas. We think of cribs as beds for babies. But crib has an older meaning. The Anglo-Saxon (Old English) word crib was replaced by a synonym, by manger in Middle English, the word we still use to describe the bed in which Jesus was placed for want of a real bed. The Maltese use crib in its older sense of manger or as a representation of the Nativity. In North America, we often use the French word crèche.
The Maltese tradition of making cribs at Christmas comes from Italy, more specifically, from Naples.
Cribs in the Neapolitan tradition are about real estate. Their makers construct vast, craggy landscapes and great architectural spaces. The largest Maltese crib I’ve seen stretched from wall to wall of a room. The landscapes and architectural spaces are inhabited by elaborately modeled terracotta figures called pasturi. In the largest cribs, whole villages are created. The villagers wear traditional 18th-century dress. Mary and Joseph are dressed as we’ve always seen them.
There are farmers and animals, market vendors and their wares, housewives and children, people eating and drinking, priests, musicians, beggars, shepherds and their sheep—always shepherds and sheep—and according to the legend, a blacksmith. All of them oblivious to everything but the every day.
But in a remote corner of the crib, in a cave or a shed or a ruin, a quiet miracle has taken place. The Holy Family, surrounded by angels, animals, shepherds, and kings, stand unnoticed by everyone in the village.
In the poem, I’ve made reference to a Poor Tommaso. That’s simply a name I’ve given to the beggar. Poor Tom was a generic 16th-century English term for a poor, mentally ill person who raved, wandered, and begged. I’ve translated Tom into Italian Tommaso.
Why is there a blacksmith in the crib? According to the legend, a shepherd tells him the story of the birth. The story fast-forwards to the Crucifixion. Thirty-three years later, the blacksmith refuses to give nails he’s forged to a Roman executioner.
Why There’s a Blacksmith in the Crib
See the terracotta townsfolk,
naked Poor Tommaso in the foreground,
the one we have to look through
to marvel at the rich, brocaded kings,
or the blacksmith,
his hammer raised time without end
over the anvil,
the one who heard a story from a shepherd
and believed his wonder,
the one who forged great spikes
and wouldn’t give them decades later
to a Roman executioner
making his grisly way
to the Place of a Skull.
OF THE PRINCE OF PEACE
TO US ALL.