Merry Christmas. Весела Коледа, Vesela Koleda. Happiness, good will, peace on earth. Hold on, I’m looking. I want to see Christmas. OK, here are some headlines. “Poll: Bulgarians Losing Hope in Protests.” Wait, isn’t it Christmas? We want to read about peace and hope. “Bulgarian Students Lead Wave of Protest.” Not it. Ah, here. “Yanukovych Tells West to Keep out of Ukraine Crisis.” No, that’s not it either, although there is a less-than-jolly holiday connection: Ukraine, pipelines, politics; Bulgarians freezing in bitter weather two Christmases ago while Mother Russia and her estranged child argued about pipelines.
Or how about this: “Refugees Fleeing Violence in Syria Confront Dire Conditions in Bulgaria.” Escaping war and running for their lives, Syrians are overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union. Bulgaria is a thousand miles from Syria! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell, Christmas or not.
My heart hurts.
My church choir is singing I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day this year. 1 The carol is based on an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Deep in the gloom of the American Civil War and personal tragedy, the poet hears the church bells “their old, familiar carols play. . .”
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!”
Hate mocks the song. I think of Christmases past. Their ghosts appear and recede, change form and hover just out of reach. They smile and laugh at bright memories of family and friends; they remember love and joy. They cry at past hurts and losses, and cringe at hate and horrors they’ve felt. Was there ever peace on earth, just because it was Christmas?
When I was living in Bulgaria, approaching the Christmas season I was called back to the States to be with my brother who was dying. Going to the airport in Sofia I noticed there were no Christmas lights or decorations, though I had been told they were indeed part of the tradition. It added to the grimness of my mood, but in that culture it was simply that a week prior to the holy day was too soon to put them up. Then, when we returned in early January, our friends had postponed their deeply traditional family holiday dinner to share it with us. Others came over and replayed a New Year’s ritual for our benefit, their young son tapping us ceremonially with a decorated branch and chanting a blessing for good health, long life and prosperity. We appreciated that, and so far it has been working for us. There doesn’t seem to be a branch big enough, though, or a chant with just the right words, for peace on earth.
War and deprivation, protests, arguments, insults and injuries. The ghosts of Christmases past cannot deny them. Still, the old ghosts, and we as well, keep faith and hold hope, and face each new day the best we can. After all, isn’t that what we do? Like Fani and Deni in the book, “Hope for the future, and work to make it good.” Peace on earth.
Longfellow’s poem concludes this way, in hope.
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.”
Peace on earth. May it be so.
- I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, as sung by “Casting Crowns” from their album Peace on Earth.