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Kipling on Christmas

Sunday, 8 December, 2013

When the US government was fighting the Great Depression in the 1930s, tree-planting was used as a tool to create work and fight soil erosion on the Great Plains. The “Shelterbelt Program”, as it was called, took trees from many parts of the world — including a hardy species from Asia, called the tamarisk or salt cedar — and planted them by the millions. Today, the tamarisk suffocates large sections of ecosystems that were once home to cottonwoods and willows, and the National Park Service devotes considerable resources to fighting the “pest population”.

The tamarisk has a guest role in Christmas in India by Rudyard Kipling, which was written in 1886. The heart-rending poem is filled with the homesickness of the expatriate forced to experience Christmas far from family, friends and the familiar comforts of the festival.

High noon behind the tamarisks — the sun is hot above us —
As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner — those who tell us how they love us,
And forget us till another year be gone!
Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
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.

Kipling Christmas

Black night behind the tamarisks — the owls begin their chorus —
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labours — let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.


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