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Lyrics and Life


By Caitlin Ward

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Johnny Marks, from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

I thought, as now this day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rung so long the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

Peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill to men

Then peal 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

So the pope cancelled Christmas this year. Well, not quite. Shortly before the Advent season began, he said that this year, “it’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

Of course, Pope Francis was speaking in a particular context — it was mere days after the Paris attacks and the bombings in Beirut. The world was reeling from a series of very violent and very public acts of terrorism, and the response from the West implied retaliatory violence that has now come to pass.

It’s true that events are particularly chilling right now. Nations in the west have responded to isolated acts of terror not with compassion for those who might be in similar situations, but with vengeance. The humanitarian efforts to give Syrian refugees safe haven are stalling, thwarted by fear, suspicion, and bigotry. The Republican primaries are giving me night terrors. Some candidates, who shall not be named because I shan’t give that wretched man more press than I have to, have suggested a ban on bringing Muslims into the United States because . . . reasons. I guess poet Emma Lazarus wasn’t referring to refugees fleeing a war-torn homeland when she asked for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in the New Colossus, a sonnet carved in bronze at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. She must not have been referring to Mexicans, either, because I hear they’re going to build a wall, or something.

By contrast, the efforts to gain retribution have been going swimmingly. On the other side of the Atlantic on Dec. 3, MPs cheered in the British House of Commons as they voted to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, surely knowing full well that there would be a substantial amount of collateral damage — and by collateral damage, of course, we mean dead civilians. The vote to bomb a country seems disturbing at the best of times, but the idea that people would be doing it so gleefully makes me very worried for the future of our communities and frankly, for our souls, as well. We’re really missing the mark on this peace on earth and goodwill toward all business this holiday season.

As I write this, though, I wonder if Francis was only referring to this year’s Christmas season as a charade. This is hardly the first year that the world has been consumed with violence over Advent, and arguably it’s not the worst it’s ever been, either. The lyrics of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, a lesser-known mid-century Christmas carol, come from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1863. The poem is somewhat longer than the lyric, and it places this feeling of despair within the context of the American Civil War: “Then from each black, accursed mouth / The cannon thundered in the South.”

Pope Francis is clearly not the first person who felt Christmas was a bit of a charade. Unfortunately, history has already set a precedent that the world does not understand the way of peace, and I am reminded of a line by Seamus Heaney: “it is difficult at times to suppress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.”

Because, you know. It’s the Christmas season. What better time is there to ruminate on the failures of humanity?

Actually, I don’t know if there is a better season to ruminate on those failures — but not in the sense that we fill ourselves with self-loathing and refuse to celebrate the season. Rather, let us ruminate on why we reverence Christmas at all. As we move through the Advent season and approach Christmas Day, we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation. We prepare to celebrate the Divine made human so he could declare the kingdom, institute the eucharist, and bear the weight of human sin on our behalf.

So really, Christmas doesn’t have to be a charade this year, or any year, regardless of what’s going on in the wider world. It only becomes a charade if we forget why we celebrate it. God didn’t send his only Son because we get it right; he sent him because we get it so terribly, tragically, almost comically wrong so often. That’s not to say, of course, that violence is inevitable, or that we are incapable of choosing the better part. It’s just that we can’t do it alone.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at