Captivated by twinkling lights, sparkling ornaments and visions of baby Jesus and Santa Claus swimming in their heads, most children are easily caught up in the magic and spirit of Christmas.
Not so with adults.
As we grow older, troubling events and feelings of loneliness, stress and worry can cloud our vision, and Christmas can seem more mundane than magic - or even unbearably sad.
Undoubtedly, there are those who feel that way this year. The fact is that 2012 has been hard on many Americans. In the Northeast, for instance, people living along the Atlantic Seaboard are still rebuilding their homes and picking up the pieces of their lives strewn about by Hurricane Sandy. And many of us are grieving and trying to make sense of tragic events in Benghazi, Libya, and Newtown, Conn., among others.
But while these traumatic events are new, such tragedies are hardly novel. They have happened throughout human history. A case in point is 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lost his beloved wife, Fanny, in a tragic house fire in 1861. In his attempt to rescue her and douse the flames, Longfellow was severely burned and nearly died.
Still wracked with inconsolable grief the first Christmas after his wife's death, Longfellow wrote in his journal: "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays ... 'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me." His grief became even more acute when his son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, was severely wounded in battle the following year.
But then a thought, or sound, pierced his gloom - the clarion call of church bells ringing. Torn between hope and despair on Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow penned the prose to "Christmas Bells," which English organist John Baptiste Calkin set to music nine years later. Today, the song is one of our most beloved carols: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." In light of recent events, I think the words of the song bear repeating:
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. 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 year, nearly 150 years after they were written, these words still ring and resonate in millions of hearts and minds. As was the case with Longfellow, they remind us that Christmas is about hope - the hope that, for many of us, is embodied in the story of the Christ child laying in a manger in Bethlehem more than two millennia ago.
Yes, hate and mockers are strong. But thanks to the promise of a small child, many people around the world have faith that hope will ultimately supplant despair, good triumph over evil, and that "peace on earth, good will to men" is actually possible.
As we gather with family and friends over the holidays, may we all embrace that hope by giving generously of our time and talents to others, especially those who are weighed down with loss and heavy burdens. Let us not only carry peace and joy in our hearts, but express them in our actions.
My wife Elaine and I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.