Twenty children murdered just days before Christmas. Six adults shot dead trying to protect those twenty kids. But, as dreadful as those deaths in Connecticut were, it was a lightly-reported incident that particularly troubled me throughout this holiday season: some Newtown residents took down their Christmas decorations. They apparently believed that expressing the joy of the season was out of place and insensitive in light of the loss suffered by so many of their neighbors.
149 years ago another resident of New England, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was also grief-stricken on Christmas. The author of Paul Revere’s Ride lost his wife earlier that year. In November his eldest son Charles was seriously wounded in battle after enlisting in the Union Army over Longfellow’s objections. Just a few weeks before, President Lincoln had given a brief speech in Pennsylvania reminding the nation that “we are engaged in a great civil war” and dedicating a plot of land in Gettysburg “as a final resting place” for the thousands who had been slain in battle there the preceding July. (The Civil War would continue for another year and a half, ultimately claiming more than 600,000 lives.)
The joyous pealing of church bells in his Massachusetts town seemed cruelly inappropriate to Longfellow on that 1863 Christmas morning, just as holiday decorations seemed to clash with the grief of Newton, Connecticut, in 2012. After considering the seeming incongruity of Christmas joy in the midst of personal and national tragedy, Longfellow sat down to write a poem he called Christmas Bells. His 19th Century anguish found an echo in 2012:
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!”
We know this poem today as the familiar carol: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Despair at Christmas is not new in 2012, nor was it new in 1863. It has always been. This is readily apparent from many songs we sing during the holiday season, not just I Heard the Bells. But if, like me, you tend to sing those Christmas carols without paying much attention to the words, you may have missed it, as I did. And while pondering Newtown’s removal of holiday decorations, the words of those carols jumped out at me. Tragedy and Christmas are not conflicting forces but weird holiday partners. The carols tell us that the joy of Christmas is the antidote to despair.
The guys who are the subject of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen are not joyous gents; they are dismayed. They are troubled by tragedy, by a world in evil’s grip. The song’s prayer is that God give these gentlemen merry rest, that they realize that Christmas is a not a season of dismay; it brings “tidings of comfort and joy” because “Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power”.
The streets of O Little Town of Bethlehem are “dark”, and not just because it’s evening. It is a place of “fears” that have lasted for “all the years”. It sits in “a world of sin” that has “hopes” for deliverance. Yet there is joy because:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Hark! The herald angels are singing because God and sinners are reconciled. Christ brings “light and life to all”, and the risen Christ has “healing in His wings”.
What is it that “Came upon a Midnight Clear”? It’s angels bending near the earth, a “weary world” marked by “sad and lowly plains” and “Babel sounds”. They foretell a time when “peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling”.
And what is there to be joyful about in the world of “Joy to the World”? Even though that world is a place where “a curse is found”, a place where “sins and sorrows grow” and ”thorns infest the ground”, there is cause for joy because “the Lord is come” and “the Saviour reigns”. Let “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.”
Tragedy at Christmas is nothing new. On Christmas Day an article on the front page of my local paper had this headline: “Kids die every day from gunfire in U.S.” In Jesus’ day, King Herod responded to the news of the blessed birth by slaughtering every boy who’d been born in Bethlehem over the last two years. (Joseph and Mary, alerted in a dream to this danger, escaped to Egypt with their boy.)
No, tragedy at Christmas is nothing new. But holiday carols–and the Book from which those songs spring forth–tell us it should not be a season of bleak despair but one of joyous celebration. That’s what Longfellow decided too. This is how he ended his poem:
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.”
May God give you merry rest too. Let nothing you dismay.