It was odd behavior, even for my mother.
A few years ago, my mom seized upon the Christmas carol “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” as the official “grab your hanky and begin sobbing uncontrollably in public” music of the Graham family Christmas.
Now, my mom bursting into tears at random moments is not unusual. To the best of my knowledge, my mother hasn’t had a single emotionally-stable moment in her adult life. It’s one of the things we love most about her. She doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve; she wipes it all over yours, too.
As a kid, I would often glance up from the TV to see my mom sitting teary-eyed as she watched the latest Chrysler commercial. It takes a special kind of woman to become emotionally overwhelmed by the prospect of rich, Corinthian leather.
And that was before menopause…
So when I walked into Mom’s kitchen and found her, lips trembling and clutching the countertop as she listened to our “Goodyear Christmas” albums for the 87th time, the only thing puzzling me was the song.
“I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day”?
Musically speaking, Christmas is the best of times and the worst of times — the best being Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the worst being either the horrid “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney, or Wham!’s “Last Christmas (I Followed You Into A Public Restroom And Was Arrested. Again.)”
“I Heard The Bells” does not fit in either category. It’s in the same class of forgettable holiday tunes like “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings.”
Yet my mother finds the song utterly inspiring, and for the same reasons I found it insipid: the refrain, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Please. Peace on earth, Mom? I’ve got another round of Medal of Honor III to play on the Xbox!
My mom tries to explain the power of the song through its story. Christmas Day, 1864. Longfellow, one of America’s premier poets, was pondering his life. His wife had died in a tragic accident just after the war started, his son had been seriously wounded on the battlefield, more than 600,000 Americans had died in the fighting, and still the war raged. Then he heard the sound of the Christmas bells, a celebration that inspired Longfellow to a particularly un-Christmas like response:
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, goodwill to men.”
“I Heard The Bells” is actually an attack on the idea of Christmas carols. “We’re at war,” the song complains. “People are dying! How can you ring your stupid bells and Xerox your buttocks at a Christmas office party during a time like this?”
And this was my mom’s big Christmas song?
But now, I’m starting to think she’s not so crazy after all.
It’s not that we’re celebrating Christmas while 160,000 Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had many wartime Christmas celebrations in the past. And it’s not that we’re celebrating Christmas while the news from Iraq is so bad. America celebrated Christmas three weeks after Pearl Harbor. One year later, the war news on Christmas morning was in many ways actually worse.
Peace on earth has often been only a wish. But what makes me want to grab the Kleenex and join my mom at the kitchen counter is that, this year, there isn’t even the hope of peace.
Forget Iraq. We can take Ted Kennedy’s advice and fly our guys out of Baghdad next week. But will that bring peace on earth, or even to us here at home? Of course not.
Across the world, a violent, reactionary movement wages war against our idea of peace — peace with freedom. They are willing to kill and to die for their radical vision of peace through Islam, a.k.a “submission.” And we cannot escape the truth that, this Christmas, the Islamists are winning.
They’re winning the killing war in Baghdad and they’re winning the appeasement campaign in Great Britain. Angry imams test America’s will in Minnesota and Manhattan, and Americans look for every opportunity to avoid confrontation.
This Christmas, I am with Longfellow. My outlook is dark and angry. I see no path to “peace on earth” other than through the battlefield. Why must our enemies love death as much as we love life? Why must they see our goodwill as weakness? Why are we so weak we cannot admit that their hatred and violence will not fade beneath our wishes of peace and understanding?
There is no peace on this earth, Longfellow said, and he was right. But he also said:
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, goodwill to men.”
My mother cries when she sings this because she truly believes it to be true. Some of us listen quietly, heads bowed, praying for the sake of our children that she is right.