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.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America's great poets, wrote this lovely Christmas hymn in 1864 and John Calkin set it to music.
It's not much heard any more, replaced by ditties about red-nosed reindeer and the like, but in my grammar school years it was always in the roster of carols we sang in assemblies during the period leading up to Christmas holidays. In the fourth verse, it goes:
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.”
The U.S. Civil War was still raging when Longfellow wrote those words. Over 600,000 died (some estimates are closer to 700,000), more than half due to disease and primitive medical care.
Little more than half a century later, the U.S. was in World War I. More than 116,000 Americans died. It was to have been “the war to end all wars.”
World War II followed, then Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War — another 561,000 U.S. service-related deaths.
This Christmas, American men and women are in faraway lands in yet another war, the dead approaching 3,000, and thousands more maimed or disfigured.
In all these wars, casualties on opposing sides, both military and civilian, have been vastly greater than our own (the Nazis killed an estimated 11 million people).
All the promise, all the abilities, hopes, and dreams in those millions of lives — gone, unfulfilled.
And no end in sight: Today, religion fights religion, Iraqi slaughters Iraqi, African slaughters African (9- and 10-year old boys, who should be going to school and playing carefree childhood games, are given guns and made to kill their own people). Iran and North Korea are potential tinderboxes. Dictators and despots abound.
Globally, billions are spent warring while millions starve or live in abject poverty and oppression.
It has been a long time since my grammar school classes sang this old Christmas hymn, nearly 150 years since Longfellow wrote it, and more than 2,000 years since that angel-heralded birth in the cold desert night lifted mankind's hearts with a new hope. Two millennia removed, peace on earth, goodwill to men seems ever more elusive and unattainable.
So, as we gather with those we love this Christmas, amid the glitter and gifts and plenty that characterize this observance in the nation that has allowed us lives that are the envy of billions around the globe, let us pause at least a moment to offer a prayer for all who have never known peace or goodwill or plenty, who wonder if the world knows or cares about them.
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.”
We can hope…