Hello, Friends!

History is a great teacher, and my favorite lesson is that no matter how bad things seem now they were nearly always much worse in the past. And while Christmas during wartime is poignant, a look to the past brings sobering perspective.

The summer before last, I was grateful guest of St. Janet Formerly of the TP, her dog Snert, and her boyfriend Kevin. Kevin used to work in the offices of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. George Will has called Moynihan “perhaps the greatest senator in this country’s history. Kevin has called George Will, “even duller than you might imagine.” Janet and Kevin both work for the Federal Government (at the time indirectly), and if you wonder how your tax dollars are being spent…well, the good news is that they’re both smart and industrious. The bad news is they’re gravely outnumbered by those who are not, but who (on the bright side) probably do somewhat better at their jobs than would Snert. The point being, they live near our nation’s capital, and when I visited I had the privilege of touring the national monuments and museums.

As those of you who know me know, I’m nuts about this country. Yes, yes, slavery…yes, yes, Joseph McCarthy…yes, yes [your complaint here]. And yet, I can acknowledge the problems and still get impossibly teary over a word or two of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. That speech was delivered before the Civil War had ended, and under the unusual circumstance of having a newly (re)elected government during a national crisis. Countries around the world fully expected the United States and its preposterous experiments with federalism to either rip itself apart or for Abraham Lincoln (“Honest Ape” as he was known by cynical Europeans) to turn dictator. Actually, quite a few practicing Libertarians think he did with his suspension of habeas corpus. But on March 4, 1865, the clouds that had up to that point darkened the day broke open as Lincoln advanced to the lectern and said in part:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

He would be dead in a little over a month, murdered by an enraged actor.
The entire address is inscribed into the marble walls of the Lincoln Monument, which, even if you are very familiar with the penny, is bigger than you might think. I might have thought to put a penny next to Lincoln’s statue to demonstrate scale, but then I’d also have to put in a big arrow and a caption to identify the teensy reddish dot. There’s nothing cold or fascist about the place; rather, there’s a reverence befitting the Greek temples that inspired its design. But that magnificence was far off—in the 1860s, the country was traumatized by division and loss. More than six hundred thousand Americans died during the Civil War, two hundred thousand more than perished during World War II by way of comparison.

In 1861, the year the war started, Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard his wife screaming in the next room. She had been encasing their childrens’ hair in wax, a strange Victorian era craft, when her dress caught fire. Longfellow managed to extinguish her, but she died of her wounds soon after. In 1862, his son was seriously wounded in battle. In 1863, about six months after the Battle of Gettysburg in which 40,000—forty thousand—soldiers died, Longfellow wrote the following:

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

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th' unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill 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"

Till ringing, singing, on it's way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

The war would last for another year and a half and had no sure outcome. The poem, entitled “Christmas Bells,” wasn’t put to music for another ten years, and at that point the third and fourth stanza which were specific to the Civil War were omitted.

These days, there’s a lot of bitter bickering in the nation, another controversial war, and another simian dictator president who infuriates actors. This isn’t to say that the current conflict is the peer of the Civil War; it is to thank God it is not. We have troubles, but so many more blessings. We should be watchful, but have a sense of proportion. And our hearts should be full of hope and gratitude.

My dear friends, may you have a wonderful year filled with love and peace and most benevolent cobras.

Merry Christmas!
Sharon C. McGovern

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