“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………….” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow*
As is often true this close to Christmas, my “to-do list” seems to have quite a few unchecked items, as does the to-do list of humanity in general. Fortunately it won’t be earth-shaking if my personal ones aren’t all completed. Probably no one will notice the smudges on the kitchen cabinets or be aware that some cookie varieties are missing. I’m happy to report that my efforts to have a more peaceful December have actually been fruitful. There have been some lovely, quiet days. The rush to get gifts for our angel tree at church (a cooperative effort between school and the churches) is over; gifts were due yesterday. All the food bags go out tomorrow at the local Food Pantry. Other things may come up, but all necessary tasks are done and we have a bit more leisure.
The Solstice is only one day away. Then the earth will tip a bit and we will gradually be getting more hours of light each day until mid-June. I look forward to this; over-abundance of darkness leaves me feeling closed in. A family member who lives in Massachusetts gives an annual Solstice party; a fun thing to do. I understand after this last month of added darkness each day (not to mention too many days of gray skies), why early humans created festivals designed to coax the sun back again. How dreadful to have the fear of living in total darkness!
There are all sorts of bells to be heard now; church bells, Salvation Army bells, jingle bells……as we hear the bells of Christmas, many of us are able to both recall and look forward to warm and wonderful stories that make up our Christmas traditions. There are many people though, for whom hanging the stockings, the laughter of children, the warmth of home and the aromas of baking cookies are only something they read about or haven’t experienced in years. There are individuals who can barely hold life together for many reasons: lack of resources, grief, depression, PTSD, loneliness, poor health. The line on the back of our Christmas card this year says: “We are all windows to one another through which God’s Light can shine.”* *So while enjoying our own wonderful celebrations, we could be sensitive to those around us who aren’t looking or feeling joyous. Instead of blithely insisting everyone have a “Merry Christmas”, perhaps instead, we could invite one or two people to join us for coffee and conversation —-and a listening ear. This hour or so of thoughtfulness might be the only bright spot in someone’s entire holiday season. Just a thought…
Probably my very favorite Christmas story (besides the real one in the book of Luke) is “Why the Chimes Rang” by Raymond McAlden***. The story goes that in a large city there was an old and elaborate cathedral. Part of this cathedral was a tower so tall that only on fair days could anyone see the top. And in that tower were Christmas bells that had hung there from time beyond memory. The custom was that people brought their offerings to this church on Christmas Eve and when the greatest and best offering, most acceptable to the Christ Child, was laid on the altar, the heavenly bells would chime. But the reality was that no one had heard the bells ring for many long years. On this Christmas Eve, two boys — brothers — set out for the city to see the Christmas celebration; they had heard about this beautiful cathedral. On the way, they came upon a poor woman who had fallen in the snow. The elder of the brothers knelt beside her and tried to warm her and wake her. He knew that if they left the woman she would die so he told his little brother to go ahead. “Alone?” said the younger —- “And you not see the Christmas festival, Pedro?” Pedro was sad, but he told his little brother to go on without him, and gave him their small silver coin for an offering. “I will try to keep her warm and you can send help.” So the younger brother went on, found the cathedral, and quietly slipped into the service. People were carrying incredibly beautiful and valuable gifts, even the King’s crown, and no one noticed when a small boy, ill-dressed, quietly laid a little silver coin on the altar. As the choir began the closing hymn, suddenly the minister held up his hand for silence. Softly, through the night air, came the clear and sweet ringing of the Christmas bells —- ringing for the love and sacrifice of the two brothers. Of course, the story is told much better in its entirety, and you can find it on line. I like it because it reminds me of the real Christmas apart from our culture’s Christmas frenzy. It speaks clearly to the joy of sacrificing for others, the futility of desiring the latest glamour and glitz, the false importance we ascribe to wealth and renown. And it emphasizes once again that “a little child shall lead them.”
As I think of children I can’t help but grieve that — in this very land of prosperity — there are still too many children who suffer from critical lacks. The numbers are so large that it leaves one feeling helpless. Children continue to be hungry, to have inadequate clothing for the weather, some are currently being kept from parents who may have made dubious choices in coming here from another land, but whose children shouldn’t be made to suffer from separation and fear, and there continues to be child trafficking and child abuse. The gifts we buy for our church’s Angel Tree and the food we give to the local Pantry are helpful, of course, especially for our own communities. But there is so much unmet need out there! We do what we can, but I have to remind myself, often, that I’m not in charge of fixing the world — only of my response to distress in our small corner of it. However, if each person helped in their small corner……Mother Teresa said: “Every act of love is a work of peace no matter how small.” Anyone making sacrifices in time and money; writing letters to influence legislation, holding people in prayer, becoming aware of where help is needed and giving what we can—- all of these are ways to spread God’s light and love. It is tempting to remain sheltered in our own comfy circumstances, but at this magic time of the year, surely we could step outside of that comfort zone, and with our combined efforts and resources, hope to see changes for good. Perhaps “to do” lists would be more celebratory with less tinsel and more Agape.
As I bake, clean and pull out the well-loved ornaments for our own observances, my mind drifts back to other Christmases. When I was a child, our church’s Christmas Eve service was at 11:00 PM. There was the absolute delight of going out into a cold, starry night way past my bedtime, and finding the white church with the tall spire filled with candle light, the aroma of melting wax and beautiful music. It was rather a struggle to keep my eyes open, but the church bells pealing out into the night had such a glad sound. I’m quite happy that our current church body meets at 7:00 PM for I have even less control over my eyelids now. But the magic is still there, and the candles, the music and the bells. After the service we always enjoy the lights around the village, and return home to finish wrapping gifts. Then we pop corn, make hot chocolate and await the arrival of our granddaughters and their family. We are warm and happy —- and I would wish that very thing — the rejoicing and warmth for each person who reads these words. May the rest of that carol also remind us that Christmas is Hope: “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.’” Joy, Hope and Peace be yours this Christmas!!
Carol may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – 1807 – 1882. American poet who composed the words to this hymn in 1863 as a response to the Civil War.
**-Karen Maines –American writer who often collaborates with her husband, David.
***-Raymond McAlden –Author and compiler of several Christmas stories. But I could find no personal information about him.