Christmas according to Fr Twardowski

Milena Kindziuk

The priest and poet Rev. Jan Twardowski thought that ‘Christmas exists to teach us how to love, to offer a helping hand to others, to smile, to forgive others’. Christmas always inspires people with hope as well as much goodness and cordiality – this is the message of Fr Twardowski’s poetry. Sharing the wafer people say wishes, show their feelings for which they do not have enough time in daily life. Christmas inspires to reconciliation and contrition for the trespasses against love. Therefore, Fr Twardowski wrote that Christmas made us better. And he reminded us of the truth that there was more good than evil in the world. ‘If it were not for Christmas, man would feel deceived. Since he cannot live only on his own. He always longs for somebody greater than him. For there is still some room for loneliness even when you are with someone’, the poet explains.

It came to me on Christmas Eve, cold, deaf and dark
with a star like a fair face – pre-war Christmas Eve,
with the house that remained in a thin photo,
with the heart that can never die,
with some unwise pen scratching the inkwell,
with the ancient saint – with Pilsudski in the calendar,
with mummy who shed tears, wanting to defend us against misfortunate –
serving beetroot soup with ravioli that made us laugh

– wrote Fr Jan Twardowski in his famous ‘Old Christmas Eve’. Christmas is the only holiday that reminds us of our family home. One can see that in those poems that recollect childhood: ‘with the house that remained on a thin photo’, ‘with mummy who shed tears wanting to defend against misfortunate’ and with grandmother ‘at a trolley’ who lived with the Twardowskis in Elektoralna Street in Warsaw.
Fr Twardowski was brought up in the home that kept traditions. On Christmas Eve in the morning, together with his three sisters he decorated the Christmas tree. It was always big, reaching the ceiling. Presents were placed under it. When it got dark the dinner began. Firstly, all family said wishes. Then they sat at the table with a white cloth. Hay was placed under the cloth and an empty plate for some unknown visitor was laid.
The dishes were traditional. They were made by his mother who was a pretty woman with her hair in a bun. Her sepia-toned photograph, placed on the secretaire, accompanied Fr Twardowski to the end of his life. After the meal all family members went to Midnight Mass to the parish Church of St Charles Borromeo in Chlodna Street in Warsaw.
Later, as a priest and poet, he spent all Christmas Eve dinners alone. When I asked him if he was not sad he used to say, ‘Then I feel solidarity with all those who are alone, who spend their Christmas Eves by themselves. Sometimes I felt sad but I got used to it…’ When Fr Twardowski was a young priest he used to walk along the streets and prayed for the lonely on that day. Later he spent Christmas Eve in his room where all things remained in their places for years: plastic angels, a hen wearing glasses, Chodorowski’s Pegaz, a cuckoo clock, a prie-dieu and a table and ‘letters with silent contents’ on the table and ‘hat from school years that pretends to show youth’, ‘old photos without which you cannot exist’ and which ‘do not mind the time’ as well as ‘little animals made from wood, paper and glass’. ‘Small things are very important in your life’, Fr Jan said. It was with them that he waited for Midnight Mass.

If we ourselves
had invented You
you would have fulfilled all our wishes
would not have been born in Bethlehem
but in Madralin
and then you would have been really illogical

– we read in another poem.’God is God that comes beyond our reasoning’, the poet stressed. That’s why he liked the carol ‘God is born’ most. I remember him saying, ‘I gradually discover how extraordinary the carol is, how many paradoxes it contains, how many sentences are illogical from the man’s point of view: ‘power quails’, ‘brightness gets dark’. They confirm that God is beyond our human logic. And they teach that you cannot fully understand everything in your life. Fr Twardowski’s poems clearly show that – as he used to say – ‘we should remember what we do not understand.’ ‘But it is common that we do not want to remember that as we do not want to remember our dreams that show nineteen to the dozen, that have no order. That’s why we cannot understand why we meet and part with people, why someone died although he was so needed. But all those events will reveal God’s wisdom. It will turn out that the meetings and partings were not accidental and the one who died cared for us better than when he was alive.’ His poetry does not say about ‘mushy’ Bethlehem with a tree, snow and presents because it would have been a simplified vision but it says that Almighty God, all-powerful, becomes a defenceless child, a Christmas Gift that is to be given to others. In his poems Fr Twardowski wrote that experiencing Christmas meant being man through whom Jesus comes to the world again.

Lord Jesus came
too early, too late, at the wrong time

When does Jesus come at the wrong time? Fr Twardowski had no doubts: when man is not prepared to receive God. When he regards Christmas as a tradition, when he does not understand what is the most important thing. And he cannot admire God who ‘is not ashamed of being so little’.
However, the poet and priest thought that it was not enough to say that Christmas reminded us of God’s coming to the world. Christmas means much more. God is born as a human being, he is like us. Apart from sin he knows all that is human: tears, suffering, joy, death. But at the same time, which you can clearly see in his poems, God is so magnificent that the whole universe cannot fathom him and so great that he can be like a defenceless child in Herod’s hands.

And think – how strange
God had some childhood
mother, donkey, Bethlehem

Entering the world God rejected his majesty, power and he was not born in a castle but in a stable. He could shed human tears, he could rejoice and suffer. Finally, he died as man. But thanks to that all things we do on earth can turn out holy: our work, tiredness, pain and suffering. Fr Jan’s poems ‘say wishes to us’. But the wishes are not always easy. Since they require our consent to life and the world. They make us accept ‘what comes from outside’, what sometimes seems senseless and illogical but actually has hidden sense. Fr Twardowski said, ‘When we wish health, happiness, all the best in fact we say pagan wishes. Saying such wishes we want to order our lives as we want. None of St Stephen’s wishes came true. If someone had wished him health, he would have soon realised that his health did not matter at all. He was hit: a stone on his left and a stone on his right, and his health was gone. If someone had wished him all the best he would have been mistaken – all things turned against him.

Let us pray on this Bethlehem Night,
the Night of Good Delivery,
to have all our matters untangled,
bonds, conflicts, complications

The poet’s words convinced us that Christmas wishes might not necessarily come true. It is good when people ask God to have his will done. What did Fr Twardowski wish in his poems? He wished that people would not lose hope, that they would thank God for being in his hands. Therefore, he wrote in one of his poems:

Now it is not the Magi that come
but scientists, doctors, associate professors
Now everything is different
instead of gold they carry dollars
instead of frankincense – computer
instead of myrrh – video

‘For today man is slightly different than he was earlier’, Fr Jan said. However, it is not enough to be moved when you see a Christmas tree and when you see Santa Claus that brings presents. According to Fr Twardowski Christmas Eve is sharing the wafer, seeking those who are close to you and rejoicing when you meet them at the table. Only then Christmas becomes the greatest feast of Man.

"Niedziela" 51/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: