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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

What Christmas Bells Might Mean

December 14th, 2012 | 6 min read

By Cate MacDonald

On my way home from work today, my favorite Christmas mix CD was playing, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on. It had been a long day at work, I was homesick and eager to get on my plane tomorrow, I had lots of packing to do, and twenty-seven people had been killed at an elementary school for no reason.

There have been too many senseless mass-killings during my short life. Well, even one would be too many, and at 28, I can vividly remember Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Fort Hood, and now this. And this one really hurt. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut when my friend told me: this time it’s a grade school. I stayed off the news sites and, worse, social media, and still cried throughout the day. 20 elementary school children. 20.

And so it was hard to listen to Frank Sinatra as he crooned about making the Yule tide gay. But then he sang, “From now on our troubles will be miles away.” And I realized, oh, he doesn’t believe it either. Nobody would.

As much as the Hallmark Channel might say otherwise, there’s nothing about Christmas that keeps us safe. There’s nothing about it that keeps evil at bay. There’s nothing about it that could keep 20 kids from being shot to death, and hundreds of others shocked, scared, and forever changed.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow realized this during the Civil War. It was during one of the greatest, deadliest, crises of our nation that he wrote what would become my favorite Christmas carol, though we don’t sing most of the verses.

christmas bells tockholes 2009 christmas bells tockholes 2009 (Photo credit: jack berry)

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!

In the first three verses he writes the vision of Christmas we celebrate. This is the Christmas day into which Scrooge bursts from his bedroom window and bids the errand boy to buy the biggest Christmas goose for the Cratchets. It’s the Christmas that Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sing about. It’s the day the Bishop’s wife gets her Christmas wish, Buddy the Elf comes to town, and Virginia believes in Santa Claus.

But it wasn’t the whole story of Christmas in 1863, any more than it is in 2012. He continues,

Then from each dark, 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!"

Our songs were mocked today. Hate was strong, and there was no peace. Evil won the day, filling the eyes of even our world-weary President with tears. There was nothing about December cheeriness that could keep it from happening, nothing about the Christmas spirit that could save those children’s lives.

Sinatra goes on to sing, “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow.” But I think anyone who has lived a bit of life knows that the fates never do. In this song, at least, Christmas is merry because we pretend it is, because we hope for things that won’t come true. It is merry when we can suspend disbelief for just a bit longer.

Longfellow came to a different, more universal conclusion.

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."

Christmas, under all it’s trappings and trimmings and shining stars, is meant as a remembrance of the most shockingly concrete experience the world ever had that God was not dead, he was not asleep, and he had not forgotten us. Tears still return to my eyes and my voice gets caught in my throat as I reread the lines tonight, over and over,

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men."

This is not a promise of comfort and mistletoe and glowing firesides. It’s not a promise that our Decembers will be merry, or even that our families will stay safe and whole. But it is a promise. And someday, it will be true.