I hope you enjoyed delving into this poem of Milton’s. I love how it starts out as a typical Christmas poem—with soft, sweet language and pretty images—and then turns into a drama of epic proportions. The “But” of stanza 16 cuts through the tranquility of the first fifteen stanzas, exposing the spiritual warfare taking place beneath the surface of the event. To Milton, the first Christmas was not just a cuddly new baby and angels singing and presents and calm winds and soft snows, but mayhem, wailing, destruction, and mad flight, as the pagan gods were driven out from their seats of power.
Like many of his contemporaries (and some Christians today), Milton considered the gods of other religions to be demons—fallen angels with the power to perform miracles and embody different forms in their efforts to attract worship toward themselves and away from the one true God. This idea is developed more thoroughly in Paradise Lost. Milton believed, for example, that Apollo is the name of a demon who through deception inspired a cult following in ancient Greece. People erected statues of him and burned offerings to him and praised his mighty deeds. During his time of power, Apollo frequently resided in his shrine at Delphi and spoke to or possessed Pythia, the Oracle, inspiring false prophesies and perverse religious practices.
One theme running throughout the poem is the emptiness of pagan worship. The people engage in elaborate rituals to honor their local deities or to petition them to act on their behalf, but their gods are not even there anymore. And they never really were—only the illusion of them was. The “gods” are in reality nothing but resentful beings who have been cast out of heaven by God and are now bent on taking down as many people with them as they can.
In Blake’s illustrations, the gods are shown fleeing their images and shrines in terror of their enemy, Christ, who has just stepped onto the battlefield. The battle is swift—the light of Christ pushes the gods back to the darkness from whence they came. It’s a hasty retreat, directly into the prison that will become their grave.
The poem is about the destruction of one kingdom and the inauguration of another. The authoritarian rule of Satan and his demon viceroys is over—Christ’s birth severely limits their power, as he displaces them from their throne. That’s not to say, though, that Satan no longer exercises influence in this world. He may be bound, God’s prisoner-of-war, but there are still many who pay him their loyalty. His final defeat is still pending.
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is an ode—a praise song. It’s an ode to the birth of Christ and, by extension, his victory over all other gods, particularly those of Canaan, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. How unusual for the genre: our martial hero is an infant! God’s first battle as Christ-on-Earth is fought from a manger-crib.
After this military interlude, the image of the bright and peaceful stable scene returns full circle. In Blake’s first painting, Peace descends, and in the last, Peace is here to stay. But let’s not forget that behind the scenes of this icon of Christmas, the cosmic forces of good and evil are confronting each other in a big way.