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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
Time to tune back in?
Can you really blame anyone who tuned out the whole Christmas scene a while ago?
Some big box stores began displaying Christmas items before Halloween. The Hallmark Channel even began its marathon of movies related to the holiday when the weather was balmy and the leaves were still bright and full of color.
Booksellers on line sent out e-mail blasts touting the latest Christmas books, calendars, and gift items.
Carols piped over store public address systems did their part to take the edge off and red and green flyers, catalogs, and circulars began clogging the mailbox in late October as well.
While all of this might be understandable from a marketing perspective, it adds to the cynicism that wells up in response.
After a year or more of ever increasingly offensive and more and more disturbing election news and the resulting terrible rending, grating political noise (oof, such noise as never before), a drumbeat of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” served up before trick or treating even began could seem like just too much for many of us.
Now, though, it’s clearly time to take a second look and tune back in. If ever we needed the healing sounds and sights of the Christmas season, it must be at this moment.
Consider the reassuring words, for example, of the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. Based on a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it dates back to December 1863. It was the middle of the Civil War. As a consequence, the poem has some archaic diction and religious references that all 21st century readers might not embrace, but its sentiment sure seems welcome at this time when turmoil and tension have left much of our society shuddering in the aftermath of the election.
Longfellow was dealing with a double blow. His wife had died in a tragic accident when her dress caught fire from an oil lamp in their home, and he was still grieving her loss. Then his son was very seriously wounded in the Civil War.
The country was deeply divided. Casualties on both sides were mounting alarmingly. No clear end was in sight. As a result, Christmas was not being anticipated with the kind of light-hearted warmth we expect. Although in keeping with the customs of those times it was probably viewed with more solemnity and reverence as a matter of course anyway.
Strikingly, somehow, despite the societal discord and the personal distress he was experiencing as he sat down to write, Longfellow found a reason to see hope for himself and for the people of his country.
His poetry, while it stemmed from great learning and deep feeling, is decidedly out of fashion stylistically here in the 21st century, but the mind and feelings from which it sprang even today deserve a substantial measure of respect, and his sentiments, which ought to be seen as sincere, are worthy of our consideration during this holiday season in these troubling times.
Here is the carol derived from the poem. It omits two stanzas that deal with the effects of the war, and it changes the order of two others.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
Saccharine and a bit too facile for modern tastes, perhaps, but if read with due allowances for the idiom of another age and the complacent meter which carries it, we could do a good deal worse than focus on the meaning of its lyrics, especially at this time of the year and at this time in our history when a serious civil divide seems to be deepening.
Thoughtful reflection on the power signified by the pealing chorus of the bells and the promise inherent in their symbolic universal exaltation of unity will surely yield a surge of affirmation of our common humanity. Even now the universal hope that lives on for us in that final line: “Peace on earth, good will to men (and women)” rings true if we allow it to.
So let’s tune back in! Merry Christmas to all!