At some point every year I get asked the same question: “What is Christmas? What does it mean to you?”
Over time I have come up with many answers, some deep and full of meaning - others a little more standard, about the birth of Christ -a time for friends and family and a time for giving and remembrance. But, there is one little story that, to me, expresses how I feel about faith and what Christmas is, or should be. I like to tell it every Christmas, and since it’s Christmas Eve, here is that story:
It is the winter of 1863 and a young Lieutenant in the Union Army has been badly wounded in one of the particularly vicious and bloody battles of the American Civil War. Christmas Eve finds him lying in a hospital bed with his father sitting helplessly at his side. The father, desperately wanting to bring some small comfort and relief to his gravely wounded son turns to his only talent and writes a short poem for the boy.
The young man's pain becomes worse during the night and they are told to expect the worst shortly. In one of the boy's calmer moments, the father reads him the poem, then takes his hand and sits by his side, silently praying, waiting for the end. The sun rises Christmas morning and the boy awakes in much less pain. The fever has passed and the boy eventually recovers.
That man was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the poem he wrote goes like this:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought as how, the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th' unbroken song
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.
This poem was later put to music and became a Christmas carol. I found this clip of it being sung by The Carpenters on You-Tube. I wanted to share it with you:
And one more thing:
This poem, written by Lance Corporal James M. Schmitt, first appeared in 1986. I just read it for the first time last Christmas. I am putting it here and dedicating it to all who serve in the far flung corners of the world so that I can sit here, sip my cocktail and write whatever I please. Thank you, and a very Merry Christmas to you!
Merry Christmas, My Friend
Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
In a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney with presents to give,
And to see just who in this home did live.
I looked all about, a strange sight did I see,
No music, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand,
And on the wall pictures of far distant lands.
With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
A sobering thought came to my mind.
For this house was different, so dark and so dreary,
The home of a soldier, now I could see clearly.
The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
Curled up on the floor in this one-bedroom home.
The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
Not how I pictured a United States soldier.
Was this the hero of whom I’d just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?
I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
On a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.
The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.
The soldier awakened and I heard a tough voice,
“Santa, don’t cry. This life is my choice.
“I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more,
My life is my God, my country, my corps.”
The soldier rolled over and soon drifted to sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.
I kept watch for hours, so silent and still,
And we both shivered from the cold evening’s chill.
I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night,
This guardian of honor so willing to fight.
The soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
Whispered, “Carry on, Santa. It’s Christmas day. All is secure.”
One look at my watch and I knew he was right,
“Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night.”
God Bless Us,
One and All!