By Ryan Dunn
Are you skeptical of Christmas? Does the whole season put you in a bit of a darkened mood?
If so, you’re not alone. Some of our most popular Christmas-season characters deal with cases of the Christmas blues. Think about the Grinch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, the boy in “Polar Express.” All are popular Christmas characters. All are skeptics about Christmas, too. Perhaps these characters are so popular because their experiences resonate to a degree with our own feelings. As these characters process through their own misgivings, cynicism, and turbulence, they encounter some kind of wonderful epiphany about Christmas. It’s possible we like these stories so much because we hope to encounter something hopeful at Christmas, too.
Many of the songs we sing through the season lead us from openings of darkness or heartbreak to realizations of hope. Take “Santa Is Coming to Town,” for instance. James “Haven” Gillespie wrote the lyrics. Gillespie’s boss demanded the successful songwriter pen a Christmas tune for the upcoming season. At the time, Gillespie had just returned to his home in New York following his brother’s funeral – he was feeling very reluctant to write a joyful Christmas tune. In haste, he jotted down lyrics and tune ideas on an envelope as he rode the subway on his way to meet his boss. The rest is history. Consider that the next time you hear the lines “You better not pout/You better not cry…” Perhaps Gillespie was writing some hope to himself: that just as the spirit of Santa Claus made a visit to each town, there was still joy to be experienced this season.
“Good King Wenceslaus” is about a much beloved murder victim. The song depicts a kindly old man who braves terrible winter weather to help poor neighbors. The archetype for the song’s King Wenceslaus was Vaclav I, Duke of Bohemia. The good-natured Duke reportedly took late-night rides around town delivering gifts to those in need. He was well-regarded by his subjects, up until he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel. The song rejoices in the legacy of Vaclav, sharing his simple acts of goodness for generations and inspiring our own acts of goodness through Christmastime.
The skeptical characters we empathize with are seemingly moved to their skepticism because Christmas is not yet fully realized. The Christmas holiday comes, and with it comes our good deeds and a little more kindness and generosity. But our greed still remains in our world. There is still heartbreak and despair. The characters recognize the incompleteness of Christmas, and are turned off by it. We feel that tension, too. Don’t we?
The old carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” exemplifies this struggle amidst the incompleteness of Christmas. The carol began as a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Legend says that Longfellow penned the words to the song as he listened to the church bells ringing in Washington DC on Christmas Day in 1863. At the time, he was in much turmoil. His wife had recently died and his son had been gravely injured in battle. Around him, the nation was in the throes of the Civil War. He heard the bells chiming on a day declared to be a reminder of “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” and he realized that, in that place and that time, there was little peace and goodwill among men. The bells rang hollow…
In the midst of Longfellow’s despair the bells kept ringing, declaring the ongoing work initiated in the first Christmas – that great event when angels appeared to announce the birth of a child who would usher in peace on earth and goodwill amongst humanity. Christmas was not hollow, realized Longfellow. Christmas was ongoing – present but not yet fully 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.”
Christmas is a glimpse. It is not something fully realized, but is instead a looking glass through which we can see the world as it could be. Christmas provides inspiration for joy, peace, and goodwill. Even if there is still conflict and greed in the world. Even if the events we celebrate on December 25 did not actually happen on December 25. The movement that those initial Christmas events began continues today. And so we continue to celebrate this season, in hopes of ringing in more peace and goodwill amongst humanity.
Ryan Dunn lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, son, and a choir of furry friends. He is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.
[Posted December 13, 2018]