Foggy Cannon Christmas

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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!
-Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”

I recite Longfellow’s poem on my drive to the grocery store, saying it to myself a few times through to commit it to memory. The stanza about the cannon falls midway through the poem, and each time I arrive at it, I cry thinking about the Civil War and what soldiers and families endured during the conflict. (Longfellow himself had a son severely injured in battle shortly before the poem was written.)

It occurs to me as I weep in the grocery store parking lot that learning this poem is not the best strategy for keeping away the holiday blues I seem to suffer every year.

***

Christmas Eve morning, a dense fog covers the cemetery I’m touring. In the Civil War section, holiday wreaths decorate soldier’s graves arranged in circles around an upright cannon. No longer thundering, the cannon still appears ominous in the fog–a silent reminder of the divisions we once faced as a country.

***

We continue to encounter issues as a country that divide us. As we head into the 2020 election year, I find myself falling into despair like the narrator of Longfellow’s poem:

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!”
-Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”

But unlike the narrator’s turn in the final stanza of the poem, I find it hard to have hope that what is right will prevail and peace on earth will be realized:

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.”
-Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”

Because people on both sides of the issues that divide us believe they are right (as was the case during the Civil War), and truth and fact are crafted in our spin culture and constantly up for debate.

***

I felt the true joy of the holiday season this year the night before Christmas Eve. At the grocery store, my mom and I helped a fellow customer locate banana pudding mix that had been pushed to the back of a shelf, and she and her family in turn found the jars of maraschino cherries we needed perched on a high shelf. We stood together afterward at the end of the aisle chuckling at our good fortune and the holiday dinners saved by our mutual aid.

There’s a lot that scares me about the world, and I don’t think the Christmas season is capable of restoring (or maybe establishing for the first time ever) peace on earth. But I’m grateful to be able share the holidays with family and the occasional stranger in need of assistance.

***

In 2020, if we can’t have peace on earth, can we at least try for “good-will to men?” Or more appropriately in this era, “good-will to people.” Can we aim for that?

If so, there’ll be less crying for me in the parking lot. Merry Christmas.


Full text of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” and additional historical information is available on the Wikipedia page for I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

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