For those who celebrate Christmas, whether of the religious or secular variety, it’s been unusually hard to get into the mood this year. We usually hope for a pleasing return to customs and traditions (trees, gifts, church services and special meals) that reaffirms our identities as members of families, and, for the believers among us, affirms our relationship with a benign and protective Deity, all bringing about a sense of well-being. And the same is true for any other culture’s or religion’s mid-winter festivities.
Well-being is a sense that’s hard to come by this mid-winter, though. With environmental disasters everywhere, ever-faster melting of icecaps, misrule rife in Washington, possible nuclear war on the horizon, the prospect of financial ruination for everyone in our country except the rich, attacks on national monuments, defunding of children’s health insurance, hate groups resurgent, genocide in Myanmar and the unmasking of sexual harassment carried out by formerly admired men throughout art, media, and government, just to name some things at random, there’s a sour note in the air bound to infect almost any celebration.
I happened to be up in New York a good deal of the time earlier this month. On the surface, everything looks as inspiring as ever. There is an astounding tree in Rockefeller Center and a great light show at Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Rockettes are still kicking up their heels with military precision at Radio City Music Hall. Yet if you wander into the Hudson Theatre, where “The Parisian Woman,” an ultra-topical play about today’s Washington, written by Beau Willimon (creator of the American version of “House of Cards”) and starring Uma Thurman, unspools nightly, you can sense the real underlying mood.
As the play recognizes, no one in the current circles of power really believes in what he or she is doing or saying. But no one stands up for what he or she does believe. Personal advancement and enrichment trumps conscience every time. And the audience seconds Willimon’s perceptions, with bitter laughs at the jokes about President Donald Trump and his sidekicks, who appear to have no admirers in that venue.
Looking to Longfellow
At the end of a different show, I ponied up $20 for this year’s Carols for A Cure, the wonderful annual collection of holiday songs contributed by the casts of various current musicals, the proceeds going to charities funding AIDS research and care and some aspects of women’s health care. I’ve bought a number of these CDs over the years, and they have frequently served to raise my own holiday spirits. But as I was driving back home this year, I found myself listening repeatedly to a rendering by the cast of “A Bronx Tale” of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and thinking different thoughts.
This song, adapted in 1956 by composer Johnny Marks from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, as Longfellow was dealing with his soldier-son’s recovery from near-fatal wounds in battle, captures the despair of that era in words eerily reminiscent of what we are all feeling now. Invited by the sound of Christmas bells to rejoice, Longfellow cannot feel it.
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!”
But Longfellow refuses to take his own depression as the final word, attending instead to the power of the bells:
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.”
Longfellow’s encouragement proved justified. His son did recover, and the North did win the war.
And perhaps Longfellow’s larger point is also true. We can and we must take heart this season. Maybe it’s only the familiar power of the bells or the trees or presents or church services or family gatherings to change the mood. Or maybe there is a God, neither dead nor asleep, still presiding over our sad world. But if so, it must be a God whose style of intervention justifies the perception attributed to Teresa of Ávila that God has no hands now but ours. And her perception (or whoever’s it really was) is key.
Come out swinging
What we all at our core want most at Christmas is to be cared for and reassured like the children we were when we first came to love the feast. But for grownups that can never be the principal concern. Instead, we shoulder the task of being Santa Claus, the nurturer rather than the nurtured, a task passed on from generation to generation. And this dark year we need to be Santa in a much larger sense, being the providential protector that the bells promised Longfellow was neither dead nor asleep. It is ours to see that the Wrong fails and the Right prevails.
Because of that assignment, we probably cannot sing “Adeste Fideles” with quite the accustomed spirit. The task we face is daunting. We are all too justified in feeling neither joyful nor triumphant, whatever the verses claim. But those are the breaks. This Christmas, we need to muster whatever cheer we can, recharge our batteries, and then – come out swinging this next year. Whatever the wounds we have sustained, whatever setbacks lie ahead, we must fight with renewed energy to reclaim our world.
No generation ever lives to see the Wrong totally fail or the Right totally prevail. But this is the moment we need to stop losing ground. And who knows? Maybe we shall regain enough of it so that someday, in our lifetimes, we can sing with conviction once more about being joyful and triumphant. Regardless, we have no choice but to try, and no holiday but the present one, by whatever name we call it, to ready ourselves.
Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.