Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas bells

My favorite Christmas carol is "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Any tune will do: Calkin's or Mainzer's. Or Casting Crowns. Or John Gorka.

The history behind the hymn is more heartbreaking than the hymn itself. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote it Christmas Day 1864, months before the Civil War ended. Just 4 months after the war began in 1861, his wife was killed in a horrific accident in their home. Her dress caught fire while she was melting sealing wax to hold together her young daughter's hair clippings. Henry tried to put the fire out and succeeded, but only after her injuries were too serious to survive. She died the next day. And his wounds--severely burned arms, hands, and face--were too great for him to even attend her funeral.

In 1863, his oldest son, Charles, was critically wounded in the war. He survived but was crippled for life.

The years of the Civil War weren't good for anyone. More than 600,000 men lost their lives, and more than half of those lives were lost due to disease. In 1864 alone--the year Longfellow wrote "Christmas Bells"--61,000 of the Union Army were killed in 5 battles alone from May to June. Longfellow was from Massachusetts.

The original poem contained 7 stanzas, only 5 of which are included in the hymn. The missing 2 (preceding the final verse) are:

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.

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.

In reading about the history of the song and poem, I wondered how Longfellow could have summoned the faith for the final verse:

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."

But that's what faith is: summoning a belief in something that makes absolutely no sense. And that's what Christmas is about, regardless of whether you believe in Christ or not. Yes, it's about His birth, but it's also about believing in the good in all of us. It's about believing we can get along for a season, that we can celebrate together, that we can find it in us to give to others--give them more than just gifts, give them hope.

And that's what this song does for me. It's bleak and dark and heartbreaking, but it reminds me that even in our most painful moments, it's okay to believe "the wrong shall fail, the right prevail."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Confessions of a petty thief

Okay. It's time to fess up.

When I was in middle school, I used to steal change from the cash register at my parent's bookstore in order to support my candy habit. All told, I probably took about $50 worth, maybe more. This coming from the daughter the rest of the family dubbed "The Golden Child" years ago. I never caused my parents a moment's worry, never rebelled, never talked back (okay, did that once and only once), never missed curfew, never drank, smoked, did drugs. Just stole from them when I was in the sixth grade.

I confessed to my parents years ago, and they granted me amnesty. Besides, my father knew I came by this candy addiction honestly. I inherited it from him.

As a kid, I recall that his favorites were licorice anything, orange slices, spice drops, Jujubes, and circus peanuts, the only one we agreed on. Although, in a bind, I ate the orange slices and jujubes, too. My own favorites and the ones for which I pilfered all that change are nearly too numerous to recount, but I can at least begin: Sugar Babies, Sugar Daddies, Charleston Chews, Pixie Stix, Fun Dip, and Dinosaur Eggs. Willie Wonka used to make those last ones (the candy company, not Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp), but not anymore. They were large, sour, egg-shaped gobstoppers that changed color as you sucked on them until you got to the center, which was a sweet-tart. mmm. They lasted forever . . . or at least until I could scrounge up the change to buy another.

This one isn't the candy kind. That would be disgusting. This is like the one my mother gave me from my father's antique collection after he passed away.

I'd like to say my palate has matured in the last nearly 30 years, but then I'd be adding lying to my list of sins. I enjoyed a handful of mini Gobstoppers (do they even make the large ones anymore?) for dessert tonight. And I have to confess they were, technically speaking, my kids' Gobstoppers. My sister sent them before Halloween, but I don't let my kids have hard candy, so I never actually handed them over. Is that stealing? I prefer to say I merely rescued my children from a potential choking hazard, which is something any good mother would do.

Anyone out there have a favorite candy from childhood?You don't even have to admit you still eat it. And I'll assume if you DO still eat it, you acquire it honestly.

Off to go do some good deeds now so I can get back on Santa's nice list. I hear he sometimes brings candy.