December 20 2012
The soundtrack of cheery holiday tunes reels on uninterrupted. Hired santas with polyester beards and padded bellies laugh on cue. Shoppers check off their lists and dart off to one of many holiday parties. Timers set lights twinkling as the cold winter sun sets. Hosts add a bit more rum to the eggnog and guests arrive with packages wrapped in green and red.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Connecticut, parents are burying their children. The season’s festivity rings hollow, a tin charade, against the grim reality of evil in our midst.
Some are calling for soul searching and direct us to “do more.” What good is soul searching over the massacre to the vast majority of Americans who cannot conceive of killing? What more can we do? Will evil men take up the call to search their own rotting souls? Will more laws stop the lawless?
That there may be no solution feels like a bitter chill through a cracked door. It causes an involuntary shutter. The contrast between the season’s cheer and the depravity of evil men leaves us bewildered. Life is not as it should be. We are vulnerable. Perhaps we always were but the bustle of daily life shielded us from this terrible realization.
We are not the first to battle disillusionment at Christmastime. On Christmas Day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was caring for his son Charles who was badly wounded in battle. Twice a widower, Henry continued to grieve the loss of his second wife, Charles’ mother, who had died in a fire. Henry had tried to save her and was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The iconic beard he wore henceforth was to hide the burn scars. In 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Henry, an abolitionist worried he might lose his country. As a father, he worried he might lose the son who had fought to save the union. On Christmas Day, Henry penned the words of a poem we have come to know as a carol.
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!’
His pen did not linger there, however; he ended the song on a different note:
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.'
Longfellow knew well the cruelty of slavery, the misery of war, the searing pain of grief, and the fear of loss. Yet, when Henry heard the bells on Christmas Day, he chose to believe that good would triumph over evil. Disillusioned, beyond distraction, and bereft of solutions, he reached beyond himself to the heart of the Christmas story and to a promise yet to come. Peace on earth, good will to men.