I love Christmas. Christmas cookies, Christmas parties, Christmas music and Christmas movies.
Ah, Christmas movies. It’s not really Christmas until I watch a few Christmas classics. In my family, some of us like “Home Alone” (just the first one) and some of us like the Hallmark Christmas Channel. I finally saw “Elf” last year, but honestly, I don’t get why it’s such a favorite.
My favorite Christmas movie has always been “White Christmas.”
May all your Christmases be white
The movie “White Christmas” opens with a very imperfect Christmas scene: the middle of a World War II warzone. The song “White Christmas” was written during WWII and first aired on radio on Christmas Day, 1941 — shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
It was a scary time in America. Many husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and boyfriends had been called up to a war on another continent. As families celebrated Christmas that year, many servicemen (and women) were an ocean away. Irving Berlin, who also wrote “God Bless America,” wrote about dreaming of a white Christmas “just like the ones I used to know.” Those words struck a chord with Americans trying to celebrate Christmas apart from loved ones.
Homesick soldiers overseas and their families back home were reminded of happier Christmases past, and clung to a song that provided hope for better days and time with family to come. “White Christmas” taps into our longing for an idyllic Christmas that matches our childhood memories, even when surrounded by reality that is so far from ideal.
There is no peace on earth
Seventy-eight years before Bing Crosby introduced the world to “White Christmas,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — author of “Hiawatha” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” — penned another Christmas song during another war.
America was in the middle of the Civil War. Longfellow, still grieving from his second wife’s gruesome accidental death, hated the war that was causing even more suffering around him. Just a few weeks earlier, Longfellow had traveled from his Massachusetts home to Washington, D.C. to bring home his eldest son who had been severely wounded in battle.
On December 25, 1863, Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” As he processed the grief and pain he was witnessing and experiencing, he reflected on the promise the angels made of peace on earth as they greeted the shepherds long ago:
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 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.’
Just this week, I’ve read the news about mass shootings and the motivations of terrorists. Conflict in the Middle East shows no signs of lessening, and while America isn’t fighting a civil war, we still don’t agree on very much.
Hate is strong.
But even in his grief and confusion and anger, Longfellow knew that Christmas promises hope. Hope that life isn’t perfect right now, but one day everything will be right again.
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.’
“White Christmas” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” both point to our longings for the perfect Christmas. We want everyone to be together and happy, for Insta-worthy family time and perfectly selected gifts.
But every Christmas will fall short of our idea of perfect. Someone won’t be able to make it home. Maybe we won’t be able to make it home. A gift will be lost in the mail.
It might be a lonely Christmas. It might be the first Christmas since a loved one passed away. But in our loneliness or disappointment or grief, Christmas still reminds us there is hope.
The first Christmas wasn’t perfect, either
Palestine in the first century had none of the everyday luxuries we take for granted, and it was under enemy occupation. Mary and Joseph lived in poverty, and on top of everything else, the Roman ruler decided to have a census.
They didn’t have a hotel. No room service. No continental breakfast. Not even a baby bassinet. But in that very imperfect place, at that incredibly imperfect (by our standards) time, Jesus was born.
God came to us, but He didn’t make His first experience in a palace or even a synagogue. He came to us in our poverty, in our imperfection. That first, imperfect Christmas was the beginning of our redemption story, ultimately accomplished through Jesus’ sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. And every imperfect Christmas since then reminds us that our home is heaven, more perfect than we can imagine.
Because of Christmas, we have hope that God will always be with us in our loneliness and disappointment and grief, and that He will redeem all of it. Whatever our plans this Christmas, whatever is less than perfect, Jesus is with us in it. Christmas reminds us of that.
Copyright 2019 Lauren Dunn. All rights reserved.