Welcome! We made it.
What an unbelievable nine months we’ve been through. It’s mind-numbing to think of all that’s happened since March and all that has changed in our lives. I wonder if that’s how Mary and Joseph felt Christmas on morning. Perhaps very similar to how we’re feeling. We made it. The day has come. Mary and Joseph faced a great deal of change and uncertainty and they did it with love, compassion and commitment. And now there is a baby that’s depending on them.
Lighting of the Advent and Christ Candles
One: Christ came into the world a helpless babe, needing care and protection.
All: Welcome, Christ child!
One: His parents were blessed by the generous gifts of foreigners, and found a safe haven among those in a different land.
All: Welcome, Christ child!
One: The boy grew in wisdom and stature, beloved by God and people.
All: Welcome, Christ child!
One: Christ’s life gave light to everyone. The light keeps shining in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
All: Welcome, Christ child!
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”
Simeon praised God for allowing him to see Christ with his own eyes.
Praise and music have always been associated with the birth of Christ in good times and bad.
As the year 1863 was drawing to a close during the American Civil War, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was coping with the loss of his wife who died three years before.
Earlier in the year, without telling his father, Charles Longfellow had slipped away from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to join the Union Army in Washington. He was a 2nd lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry when he was severely wounded in Virginia on November 27. His father received a telegram on December 1 about Charles’s injuries and immediately set off for Washington, where he awaited his son’s arrival by train on December 5.
The first surgeon Longfellow spoke with said Charles might be paralyzed from the bullet’s damage, but other doctors told him later that the bullet had missed his spine and he would eventually recover.
His father later wrote a friend, saying that experience caused him, “a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”
Back home in Cambridge on Christmas Day, he wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells,” which begins with a note of despair, but while Longfellow was writing he heard church bells begin to ring and that changed the tone and the ending of the poem that a few years later was set to music.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till, ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good-will to men!
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!
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!’
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!’”
Families like that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who lived through the American Civil War endured tremendous suffering and loss. There wasn’t a community, a church, a family that wasn’t touched by the pain and hardship of the war.
2020 has also been a year with tremendous suffering and loss and sometimes it’s helpful to remember we’re not the first people to live through such times. We’re not the first people celebrating Christmas under less-than-ideal circumstances. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a good reminder of that, and other songs make that point as well.
A few weeks ago (December 8, 2020), Zoe Madonna wrote an article in The Boston Globe titled, “The perfect song for Christmas 2020? It’s 76 years old.” There’s no question: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the perfect song for this bizarre holiday season.
Judy Garland’s version fits Coronavirus Christmas in every way.
“But wait,” I can hear you say. “What does a song with the lyrics hang a shining star upon the highest bough have to do with Coronavirus Christmas?”
The answer is: nothing. Because if the song you’re hearing has that line, it’s not the version I’m talking about.
To hear the original (and in my opinion, better) version, we’ve got to go back in time to the November 1944 release of the classic romantic musical comedy film “Meet Me in St. Louis” starring Judy Garland as one of four sisters growing up on the cusp of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” composed by the songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, appears near the end of the film. Garland’s teenage character tries to comfort her little sister at Christmastime, while also bracing to leave behind the boy she loves. She’s consoling herself as much as anyone else. She sings in the final verse “Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow, until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
It worked perfectly within the film’s context, and it was even better in real life. “Meet Me in St. Louis” opened just before the three-year anniversary of the United States entry into World War II, and troops and their families were steeling themselves for yet another holiday apart. “Merry Little Christmas’’ struck a chord with the public, capturing the melancholy and uncertainty of another wartime Christmas while steadfastly hoping for happier times ahead.
Even without the wartime aspect, Garland’s version hits on a persistent truth—being sad around the holidays can be profoundly difficult, especially if one is bombarded with the idea that we all should be cheerful and happy all the time. Unlike many popular Christmas songs, “Merry Little Christmas” speaks directly to the lonely and downcast. It encourages listeners to make the best of a bad situation, to have themselves a merry little Christmas anyway.
There’s not a single word in Garland’s version that couldn’t be about this Christmas. Next year all our troubles won’t be entirely out of sight, but with the development of COVID-19 vaccines and as more people are vaccinated each week, it’s increasingly likely that at least the troubles associated with the pandemic will hopefully be out of sight by the time Christmas comes around again. We’ll be with our loved ones and friends “once again, as in olden days”—as in, the days before March 2020. But in the meantime, we’ll all have to muddle through. Somehow.
One of the things I appreciate about history is how our hopes and dreams and longings aren’t much different from those who have lived before us.
We can be blessed and encouraged by a Christmas song from 76 years ago or a poem written on Christmas Day more than 150 years ago.
We can go back even farther and be enriched by the writing of those who celebrated Christmas long ago.
I appreciate this Christmas prayer by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090—1153) who was born in France almost 1,000 years ago.
“Let Your goodness Lord appear to us, that we made in your image, conform ourselves to it. In our own strength we cannot imitate Your majesty, power, and wonder nor is it fitting for us to try. But Your mercy reaches from the heavens through the clouds to the earth below. You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with Your tiny hands, embrace us with Your tiny arms and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.”
I hope you’ll have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850—1894) was born and educated in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was a novelist, poet and travel writer, most noted for Treasure Island. Stevenson suffered from serious bronchial trouble for much of his life but muddled through and continued to write prolifically and travel widely in defiance of his poor health. He was only 44 when he died. I truly appreciate his poem, “A Christmas Prayer.” Here it is:
“O God, our loving Father, help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of the Angels, the gladness of the shepherds
and the worship of the wise men. Close the door of hate and open the door
of love all over the world. Deliver us from evil by the blessing that Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts. May the Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children and the Christmas Evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving, and forgiven, for Jesus’s sake.”
In the 1851 Christmas essay, “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older,” Charles Dickens wrote:
“Christmas is a time for reminiscing of the past, dreaming of the future and envisioning what has never been, as well as for opening one’s affections to other human beings.”
I pray wherever you are, that this Christmas you may reminisce and tell stories of some of the best Christmas’s you ever had. I pray God will still give you dreams for what lies ahead, and that you will open your heart and affections to other people as Christ did. Opening our hearts can change the world. May the love and peace of Christ fill your home this Christmas season, and may your new year be filled with hope and joy.
A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, everyone!