“What’s your favorite Christmas song?” my sister, who is not a Christian, asked me.
Christmas was always and extraordinarily joyous season in my home growing up, even after my mother left the Catholic faith and my father drifted in that direction.
I revel in all that some deride as excessively pagan trappings of the season: glittery Christmas wrapping paper, butter cookies, red-nosed reindeers, a riot of Christmas lights!
“But what does it all mean to you without Christ?” my high school boyfriend, a Baptist convert asked me back then and I spontaneously broke out into a chorus of “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas!”
I couldn’t understand my faithful boyfriend’s puzzlement, back in my atheist days. I only knew, then, that even people without an explicit faith can sense the sacred and rejoice in it.
The material world itself expresses God’s creative love; the reason for hope.
But raised as I was lucky enough to be in the greatest, safest, freest, most abundant and most fantastically creative society man has ever seen–and lucky in particular to be raised in the arms of a remarkably loving and committed mother and father, I did not then know the difference between hope and that more characteristically American emotion, “optimism.”
Optimism expects things to get better because well, they always have.
Hope is something else.
It was late at night, after my children had gone to bed and I was alone lying on the couch with the gobs of wrapping papers and the Christmas lights that I heard what I told my beloved sister has became my favorite Christmas song, the one that conveys so vividly the difference between optimism and hope.
“I heard the Bells on Christmas Day/Their old familiar carols play,” it begins. ”Peace on Earth, Good will to men!”
But it was this note, so rare in our optimistic Johny Marks’ Christmas that riveted me that mid-night:
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!’
Despair is not something Americans like to face or perhaps face very well. Life to a rational mind, does not always and everywhere appear to be getting better and better. For most of mankind, most of the time, it has been quite the reverse.
“Christmas Bells” ends on a high note, the note of faith, the lyrics written on Christmas Day 1864, the dawning of the age of Nietzche.
“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.”
You do not know what hope is until you have at least tasted despair.
Before it became a carol, “Christmas Bells” was written by a poet.
The version we now know, set to music by Rudolph’s composer Johnny Marks, leaves out two crucial verses that make the national dimension of the tragedy clear: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in 1864, in the midst of deep tragedy, both personal and national.
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
In that despair, the immense bloody cruelty of the Civil War unlike anything else in the American experience, Longfellow bowed his head.
But not only because of the Civil War.
In 1861, his beloved wife Fanny, whom he had courted for seven long years before she would consent to marry him, the mother of his six children, was horribly burned in his arms. On a hot summer day, Fanny had rimmed their 8 year old daughter Edie’s beautiful golden curls, and decided to try to preserve them in sealing wax. The wax dripped on her dress which burst into flames. She ran from the room to protect her daughter into her husband’s study where he tried to quelll the flames with his arms. She died from her injuries the next morning. (Here is the portrait of her mama that Edith drew the year before.)
In his private journals and letters, Longfellow recorded his despair.
How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not. I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly – as I have from the beginning – for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end.”
The first Christmas after his wife’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The entry for December 25, 1862 reads: “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
In 1863, Longfellow’s eldest son Charles ran off to join the Civil War without his father’s consent. In a letter dated March 14, 1863, Charles explained to his bereaved father: ”I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good”.
What patriots we are the great-great grandchildren of!
Six months later Charles was shot in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia.
The Christmas of 1863 Longfellow left blank in his journal.
The next year, on Christmas Day 1864. Longfellow penned “Christmas Bells”
In America we have every reason for optimism. With all our current troubles, with all our legitimate fears for our future, America is a big juicy, wonderful country full of good people, good neighbors, good friends.
But optimism alone is never enough. It cannot replace the need for hope.
God is not dead. Nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail. The right prevail.
Progressivism without God is sheer irrational optimism but we need not be afraid to hope for something better.
I thought to write a whole Christmas letter without mention of public controversy, but Pope Benedict sent out this message to Italian: “In the fight for the family, the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question,” the Pope said in Italian during an end-of-year speech.
“The question of the family … is the question of what it means to be a man, and what it is necessary to do to be true men,”
He quotes France’s chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, “Bernheim has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper,” the Holy Father said.
The defense of marriage, sex, gender and the family, the Pope said, “is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears.”
One final note of Christmas cheer. The Pope just surpassed Justin Bieber as the most followed man on twitter, 2 million and growing.
Have a merry, merry Christmas. Be not afraid.