Peace on earth, good-will to men

Merry Christmas, friends! On this sixth day of Christmas, I wanted to share some thoughts about “the holidays.” It seems to me that Christmas and New Year’s can be the most joyful and difficult times for so many people – quite a feeling-filled and polarizing way to end the calendar year. People who’ve experienced significant suffering and difficulty seem to feel it the most at this time. “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas day in 1861, the year after his wife died in an accidental fire. Two years later, Longfellow’s son would be severely wounded after he ran away to fight in the Civil War. That was the year Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells.”

    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!

And 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!

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!

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!

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.”

This poem has become a song played alongside every other Christmas carol around this time of year. I’ve always liked it, but when I read the story behind it it took on a greater meaning. Now that my family has celebrated Christmas day of 2014 alongside the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I think I can claim “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” as my new favorite Christmas carol.

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Grandpa and Grandma with Dom

We didn’t know my mom’s mother was going to die when she went into the hospital last December, but she ended up being discharged heavenward by the end of her stay. It was a cold, dark winter evening on December 25th when her life ended here on earth, and it made Christmas day very different that year, and now, every year going forward. We won’t celebrate that day quite the same way ever again.

You have to wonder at the goodness of something like Christmas when death touches it… but in reality, our hope isn’t in a gooey, feel-good type of Christmas. It’s not wrong to associate those kinds of feelings with Christmas, and I have fond memories of thinking of this holiday as inextricably linked with glowy lights and family and peaceful feelings. But as we grow up, we inevitably experience sorrow and heartbreak, and even if it doesn’t come right on December 25th, we’re bound to remember the hurt along with the joy during any celebration.

Our hope lies in the reality that God is not dead, nor does he sleep, even if it seems that he does and that he is deaf to our cries of sorrow. This year Pope Francis shared joyful Christmas greetings in his Urbi et Orbi message, right before he called our attention to the plight of persecuted refugees in Iraq and Syria. “Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, together with the tears of the Infant Jesus,” the pope said.  Our God hears us. We trust in him and fully believe that the same God who rejoiced to send his son to us also sorrowed at his suffering and death.From-The-Crib-To-The-Cross-300x300

And that’s just it: the joyful news of Christmas is caught up with the reality of the cross: that Jesus was born in flesh like ours so he could also die in it, and put to death all the evil that plagues our humanity. When we said goodbye to my grandmother on Christmas day, we let her go in the great hope that she died accompanied by God’s great mercy.

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Grandma’s high school photo

Most versions of the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” after the narrator’s despairing words, let the last stanza build and swell strongly with the proclamation “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”

So Christmas isn’t quite the same anymore, but it’s still beautiful. There are countless reasons for us to bow our heads and mutter, “there is no peace on earth.” But we have a great hope that there’s more to this life than vague feelings of temporary happiness that come with the holidays, sprinkled among a timeline of pain and suffering. The Wrong shall fail. The Right prevail. 

May you know peace in your hearts this new year.

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10 thoughts on “Peace on earth, good-will to men

  1. Wow, Melanie, you captured my sentiments of this Christmas perfectly! Thank you! Although I will never forget all of us praying the rosary in Mom’s room last December and your singing the Salve Regina! I really think Grandma heard us in her last hours with us! I also will not forget Paul’s words that you shared with me last year “It may not be a merry Christmas, but it was a blessed Christmas”! Thank you Paul for those words too! I love you dearly! ~~~Mom

  2. Hey Melanie, just wanted to thank you again for your wonderful insights. It helps to get another perspective, and as they say the first year is always the toughest. Thanks to Paul for his insights also. “It may not have been a Merry Christmas, but it was a Blessed Christmas.” I’m adding that to my quote collection. Love you all.
    Aunt Sue

  3. Thank you Melanie. You have a very calming and heartfelt way with words. It’s beautiful. I have always loved that song, even more so now.

  4. Melanie;; just read your writing on our Christmas after the death of mom. and it brought tears to my eyes… tears of joy through our sadness, and created a place of peace through these trying times. words of wisdom to and to my own journal. i sometimes think i should stop writing . But then i feel compelled : no driven to write , and there is my heart content as unto paper my soul is spent..

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