You probably love trimming the tree. Wrapping the presents. Putting out milk and cookies for Santa. Getting up this morning with the happiness of the day. These are The Holidays, after all, and you expect tidings of comfort and joy.
My expectations for The Holidays have traditionally been more complicated than that. Not that I have any reason to actually be in a bad mood about Christmas. I just find the forced merriment aggravating, sometimes excluding and often lonely. Plus I hate to shop.
Bah humbug. There, I said it.
I must confess, however, that this year snuck up on me like a ghost at midnight. I started the season with my usual crisis of cheer but then, well, you might say a bell went off in my head.
It was the day we put up our tree. That morning, I learned my daughter – my only child and Christmas-morning-gift-opening companion for the last 21 years – was leaving for the holidays and that we would have to cancel a trip to Mexico. She needed to work to help pay for the last semester of college and, she confessed, she was still tender about flying after the terrorist attacks in September. So she got on a bus and left.
With her gone, I would be spending Christmas with my longtime boyfriend, Peter, two of his college-age children, and their mother. Psychographically, we look like your average 21st century pre-ex-pro-con-yours-mine-ours American household. A blended family, you might say – although blender is sometimes more what it feels like.
The point is, this was not sounding like the most promising holiday plan I’ve ever had.
Let me add to this that my late mother’s birthday is in December, and I found myself aching to place my head on her shoulder and say, “Ma, tell me about life.”
This was my frame of mind while I was decorating the back yard of Peter’s house, putting up lights for his family and longing for mine. I was deep in this self-pity when I heard the bells ringing at a nearby church. They ring every hour of every day, but I have become so accustomed to the sound that it long ago fell into the domain of background clamor.
Yet this day, the bells caught my attention because, quite astonishingly, they reminded me of “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ classic story of the night Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner into a good man. I’ve seen more than 30 productions of this tale – in fact, my daughter performed in it many years ago. I can practically recite the words that tell of Mr. Scrooge and Old Marley, who is dead as a doornail, and the travels with ghosts. Ghosts, I might add, who are announced by chimes.
This story is beloved to me and I don’t mind confessing that Mr. Scrooge is one of my most cherished heroes in all English literature.
So when these bells rang in the back yard that day, I was stunned by the depth of the echo in my ears. Somehow, it seemed louder, more primal to me this time, and those clangs vibrated in my heart. “It swung so softly at the outset that it scarcely made a sound,” writes Dickens of the first bell Scrooge hears that fateful night. “But soon it rang out loudly.” As I recalled these lines, a small chill ran through me. Then, as if in a dream, I was whisked back to all the bells of Christmases past and present.
Workers standing in the cold and ringing bells for donations to the Salvation Army. George Bailey holding his daughter at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and a bell on the Christmas tree jingling as Clarence, the angel, gets his wings in heaven. The Grinch hearing the Whos down in Whoville singing joyfully despite his pilfering of their gifts the night before. My mother waving a chain of bells from the back porch of our family home in Washington five years ago when my daughter and I arrived for what would turn out to be our last Christmas with her. And a tiny bell ornament that hung on all the Christmas trees of my childhood.
These bells transported me, I tell you.
Suddenly, I felt as light as a feather, and it seemed easy to support my daughter in her venture and to feel generously toward Peter and his family. I would endeavor, I promised, to be a person of cheer. Or at least to do my best.
Good bells and good stories do that.
To you today, I say, consider the bells. On sleighs, in carols, from the twin steeples of Columbia Street Baptist Church in Bangor. Doorbells, altar bells, phone bells, the bell on the alarm that awakes you in the middle of the night to put out gifts for the little ones.
These are the heralds of the season, the ones that stop us in self-pity, in self-centeredness and even in national mourning and fear to greet the moment with an awareness of our blessings.
Listen to the bells today. Let them encourage your heart as they did mine. Let their tintinnabulation remind you of all that is good in the world, all that is good in yourself. Turn to the people around you – whatever kind of family you have – and let the bells of season, the ones of charity and grace, ring from you.
Remember Scrooge who, on Christmas morning heard, as if for the first time, the lusty peals of church bells, “Clash, clash, hammer; ding, dong, bell! Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!”
Allow me the presumptuous but heartfelt mission of speaking on behalf of my old friends, Mr. Scrooge, Mr. Grinch and George Bailey: “God Bless Us, Every One!”