From all of us here at The Shelf- we wish you a very happy New Year! And just to kick things off just right: a festive Debbie Reynolds is just the thing to bring in the new year I think! (And yes we do know it's not 1953.)
Have a fun, but safe, New Year's Eve- but may it be a bit more lively than Nick Charles' evening with Nora's family on New Years Eve:
Luke 2:19 "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." May you keep the meaning and spirit of Christmas in your heart and ponder them throughout the coming year. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
Shelfers- indulge me for a moment. This post isn't necessarily for you. You can read on, of course, but just know that the target of this post is not our readers- but really this is for "that person." Maybe you know one, hopefully you haven't run into one and your holiday season is much brighter for it. But if you have- let them read the following special message.
Times are tough for a lot of people; there is no denying that. However, I have noticed a good deal less good cheer and kindness out there this year. Usually, the collective we do a pretty good job of trying to get past all the bad stuff, but this year has been difficult to really see any of that. Perhaps that's a reflective statement, I grant you, but I have been looking. There is evil out there, and there are people who do bad things to others- but that should not dampen what this time of year should symbolize.
Don't get me started on traditions and Christmas not really being what we think it is and Roman feast days and such- I am a history teacher, I know all about that stuff. I knew it before many smart pants college freshmen eating Cheetos read about it on a website somewhere. I've read books about the holidays- remember those? Books? Anyway, I digress.... What I am getting at is that in the long run, none of that stuff matters. A holiday to foster good will to others, to bring back a little selflessness in the world, to bring some light into others lives? You could call it Starlight Day and I would still think it was an awesome idea. Some people can't handle the religious connection, and others can't get past their own ego and their own imperfections to allow something like Christmas to try and actually foster goodness in the world. Are you one of those people?
Yes, it's way too commercial, but that isn't always the people's fault. Yes, it is based on a celebration marking the birth of Jesus Christ and people who believe and worship him are marking a religious occasion in a supposedly religiously tolerant country- which means it is a religious holiday (don't get me started on the supposed "tolerance" part). And yes there a bajillion other traditions and stories and myths associated with the holiday that have blended, changed and fused themselves into our modern day holiday. So what? No- I mean it- so what? If someone has a problem with that, or Hanukkah, or Ramadan or Kwanza or Festivus for that matter, why do they have to set out to ruin, insult and generally poop on everyone else's special time? If you are that someone and are reading this, I ask you- what is your deal? Are you really gonna be "that person"? Stop being an ass about things. There is enough crap in the world the rest of the year; lets try and bridge the gap between goodness and needing goodness in your life. If it promotes peace and goodwill- let it be. If it fosters love and hope- let it be. If it helps people understand and to try and grow into better people- for goodness sakes, let it be. In other words, get over yourself, smile and let people have this one. You have a whole other 11 months or so to be a jerk, maybe just for this one month you can restrain your self-important, smug self and allow some more hope and peace into the world. Thank you.
OK, Shelfers, we're back. Sorry about that - had to get that off of my chest. Please go on about your Yuletide doings. Whatever holiday you celebrate this season, we wish you and your families much peace and happiness.
There are so many holiday specials, old and relatively new that are available on DVD or Blu-Ray, which wasn't the case even 5 years when we started the Shelf. Back then we were making the case that these shows should be available on DVD, or at least shown again on television. Other than Cartoon Network, ABC Family, and the big Nets showing the very few standards, you wouldn't find many on television either. In recent years I've discovered more being shown, newer holiday specials being created and even more cable channels getting into the act. So it almost seems somewhat difficult to find something to share with you that you couldn't easily find on DVD or television. Almost.
The Story of the First Christmas Snow is part of Rankin/Bass' holiday cannon that doesn't get much airtime, other than the occasional afternoon viewing on ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas. It stars the voices of Angela Landsbury and Cyril Richards. While it was available on VHS back in the day, it is not available on DVD- one of a handful of Rankin Bass Classics that aren't available for some reason or another (The Mouse and the Mayflower is another classic not available). It's a sweet story that is beautifully animated in the classic Rankin/ Bass style. Perhaps the Nets don't air it because of the overt religious tone or sentiment (imagine that- at Christmas time no less!). I don't know- but that's OK. The magic of the interwebs have saved the day. It's available in parts on YouTube. So for today's Christmas Cartoon Time we present to you The Story of the First Christmas Snow, with bonus Christmas time commercials from the 1980s (AKA the good "old" days according to my son).
...the protest and event that became known as The Boston Tea Party occurred. Perhaps many may think the event is now insignificant, and you might be surprised by how many people know very little about it and the story behind it, if they recognize it at all. A quick overview is in order.
In the 17th century, the European market for Tea had increased greatly and in 1698 English Parliament gave a commercial Tea importer, the East India Company, a monopoly on the importation of tea. Commerce to the Colonies was also popular, but had to legally be done through middlemen. British law required that colonists buy their tea only from the Mother country. Wholesale buyers in London purchased the tea from East India Company, and then sold it to British merchants and companies who sold to merchants in the colonies.
However several circumstances caused a shift and financial problems. Dutch tea merchants could afford to undercut prices, because of no such restrictions in their country. Therefore the smuggling of Dutch tea to the colonies became a growing venture. Also the East India Company was paying a large scale import duty to the crown on its tea, which was further taxed all along the process down to selling it to consumers. East India Company was losing a lot of money. Efforts to eliminate the duty on the East India Company and some of the other "tea taxes" along the way in England ratcheted up. Then, the perfect storm occurred. The financial difficulties due to the recent Seven Years War, as well as monies owed in the colonies, caused Parliament to take harder measures to shore up the financial situation. Parliament, for the first time, had begun to levy direct taxes on the colonies to raise and stabilize revenue. In the effort to shore up the East India Company and the tea trade, Parliament refunded the Import Duty to the East India Company and repealed the taxes on Teas in England. In order to help make up for this lost revenue, a tax on Tea in the colonies was included in a series of Acts, known as the Townsend Acts, and directly levied against the colonies in 1767.
The Acts lead to many protests and boycotts in the colonies, and colonial officials sending agents to officially protest in front of Parliament (one such agent was Benjamin Franklin), arguing that the lack of direct representation of the colonies in Parliament made the "taxes enacted without consent of those taxed", a violation of British constitutional law (all the way back to the Magna Carta). Eventually the Townsend Acts were all repealed, except for the tax on Tea. This was a principle of Parliament to not completely concede the taxation argument. The boycotts and protests subsided for the most part in the colonies.
Several years later, the refund and tax relief enacted by Parliament in 1767 expired and the tax and import burden renewed. The price of tea began to skyrocket to make up for this renewed expense, and consequently sales began to sink. Complete elimination of the tax by Parliament was sought by East India representatives. Eventually Parliament did so and further eliminated the middlemen in an effort to change the process and make it more financially sound. The price of tea was then lowered in the colonies as well, because Parliament allowed the bypassing of London auction buyers, allowing instead the East India Co. to deal directly with colonial agents (called consignees) who then sold to merchants for a commission. The big mistake Lord North and Parliament made was continuing to allow and try and enforce the Townsend Duty on the tea (the lone holdover from the otherwise repealed Townsend Acts). Despite the streamlining and trimming of the overall tax burden in England on the Tea market, the Tax was still imposed as this money went mostly to paying government officials and agents, including Royal officals in the colonies. The East India Co and several members of Parliament argued for a final repeal of the Tea Tax and argued it was unnecessarily provocative.
The East India Co. and the government agents tried to conceal the tax within the price or through charges to merchants, but they were unsuccessful. The four consignees were based in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston. None of the four ports ever accepted shipment. The Consignees were forced or compelled to resign in Philly, NY and eventually in Charleston, where the tea either was sent back or seized by customs officals. Acceptance of the Tea shipments would necessarily provided legal precedence and possible legal acceptance of the tax itself. By outright forbidding the agents of the East India Company and the crown from accepting shipment- the colonies refused the authority of the Parliament from further encroachment into the commerce of the colonies.
In Boston, the Sons of Liberty tried to do the same and organized a protest. The situation was more fluid there, than in the other 3 ports. Governor Hutchinson's two sons were the consignees and he was determined to get the tea in the harbor, unloaded and the duty paid. British law required the ships to unload and pay the duties within 20 days or the cargo could be confiscated by customs (which is what happened in Charleston). While the Sons of Liberty and local officials prevented the tea from being unloaded, the Royal Governor prevented the three ships from leaving the harbor without paying the duty. It was rather a stalemate.The last night of the deadline Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty and supporters held a meeting where they learned that the Gov issued one final refusal for the ships to leave. The group left the meeting, and later that evening a group of people, some vaguely disguised as Indians, came to the wharf and dumped all of the shipment into the water. In his book, "The Shoemaker and the Tea Party", author Alfred Young details the first hand account of George Hewes, a Boston shoemaker, which was recorded some 60 years after the event:
"It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin's wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination. When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three parties, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time. The name of him who commanded the division to which I was assigned was Leonard Pitt. The names of the other commanders I never knew. We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging. We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water. In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.
We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division, whom I have mentioned. There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months. During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets. One Captain O'Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf nine each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke. Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo by a tall, aged man who wore a large cocked hat and white wig, which was fashionable at that time. He had sleightly slipped a little into his pocket, but being detected, they seized him and, taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets, into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick. The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable." George Hewes as quoted in Alfred Young, "The Shoemaker and the Tea Party")
Reaction in government and commercial circles back in London was fierce. Repayment for the lost shipment was demanded and members of Parliament began to urge punishment. The Coercive Acts were thusly born and Boston Harbor was closed for a time. Aside from further uniting the Colonies together, the Coercive Acts was one of the reasons for the convening of the First Continental Congress; to official and unitedly petition the King to redress the Acts and other grievous acts by Parliament. The protest, which only later came to be known by its now popular nickname, was one of the incendiary events on the road to Revolution.
The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum in (where else?) Boston has a very nice website with good information, although they are closed for renovation until Summer of 2011. Maybe by then, the Loophole family will be able to take a long desired trip to visit many of the history and museum spots in New England.
Every year TCM does a usually classy job of releasing an "in memoriam" video of stars, directors, technicians, etc who have passed away during the year. Here is this years version, newly released. You can also see it at TCM.com.
(Hat tip to Laura for the heads up that TCM had released this)
We here at the Foreign Correspondent household have once again been listening to Christmas music since a few days before Halloween. (Despite my appreciation of The Nightmare Before Christmas, I typically argue that Halloween doesn't play as nice with Christmas as Thanksgiving does, but since I'm gone most of the day, my arguments mean nothing.) Suffice it to say, we FC's love Christmas music. It is the best represented genre in our collection. And, in case you're wondering, we prefer the classics. And The Manhattan Transfer album.
On to the point. As I was Christmas caroling with a youth group I work with, I was once again puzzled by the song "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas." For those of you unfamiliar, here are the lyrics to the first verse:
Jolly old St. Nicholas
Lean your ear this way
Don't you tell a single soul
What I'm going to say
Christmas Eve is coming soon
Now you dear old man
Tell me what you'll bring to me
Tell me if you can.
(That is how I learned it, at least. I don't want to start a you-sing-it-wrong war here.)
This is supposed to be a lovely little song, representing the joy and innocence of childhood as a caring little moppet sits upon his/her hero's knee in joyful seasonal congress. But that is not how it ever sounded to me. I am writing this post so that I can finally get this off my chest.
The whole "tell me what you'll bring to me, tell me if you can," part sounds like a challenge to me. It is as if the kid is saying, look, Santa, I don't buy it. If you're really making these Christmas Eve deliveries, prove it. And that has sort of soured the whole carol for me. That line morphs the rest of it into a slightly menacing stream of insults.
Here, let me provide a translation:
Jolly old Saint Nicholas Lean your ear this way
>"Jolly" is obviously code for "fat," here, and the whole "lean your ear this way" is an ageist comment intended to insult "old" Saint Nick.
Don't you tell a single soul
What I'm going to say
>Its a threat. The "or what" portion of the threat is left intentionally vague to increase the menace.
Christmas Eve is coming soon
Now you dear old man
>This is like the thugs sent by a bookie to whom you owe money pretending to be nice and civilized. What is really being said here is that time is running out, and I like you, Santa, and it would be an awful shame to have to hurt you.
Tell me what you'll bring to me
Tell me, if you can
>Okay, I inserted the implied comma in the last line this time.
Do you see it? All the following verses are just like a Bond villain's monologue. The threat has been made in the fist verse. The little monster knows what Santa's done for everyone else. Santa is being warned that if he doesn't bring his A game, he, and likely the people he loves, is going to get it.
Here is a quick re-write of verse one, with all the euphemisms removed. Here is what the little sociopath is actually saying:
Listen up, fatty. You talk a good game, but you've only got until the 24th to make good. So what are ya gonna do for me?
And Santa. Keep you're mouth shut. Or someone's gonna get hurt.
About a month and half ago, I was doing my daily read of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings and read a delightful post which was her answers to a "Cinema Survey" that was originally started by blogger Amanda of A Noodle in a Haystack. A pretty cool, and difficult, set of questions bound to intrigue any classic film fan. I saved the questions in a file, meaning to do the thing myself, but never got back to it. You see, this would require consideration, time and honesty and so....aw, heck- I'll admit it. I just forgot to do it. However, I saw it on my "To Do" list several times, and finally this week, I was determined to finish it. So for what it's worth- and I know it's late, here are my answers to the survey. Maybe some of my answers will surprise you. Please be sure to go back and check out Laura's responses as well as the original post at A Noodle in a Haystack.
1. What is your favorite movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, excluding all of The Thin Man films? That would have to be a draw between Libeled Lady and the highly underrated I Love You Again, although I am a fan of all their pairings.
2. Name a screen team that appeared in only one film together but are still noteworthy for how well they complimented each other. Hmm, there are several, put how about Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. It was like lightning in a bottle. Cary Grant really complimented so many of his costars so well, and made the pairings seem so natural.
3. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' best film together? Shall We Dance would be my favorite.
4. Your favorite actor named "Robert"? This will throw you- Robert Duvall. I like Montgomery and Taylor of course, but my hats off to Mr. Duvall in a tight contest. But if I were keeping this to older films, I would perhaps say Robert Montgomery.
5. An actor/actress who, when you see one of their movies, you always wish that someone else was in his/her role? This is hard but I would have to say…Burt Lancaster, I just can’t stand him sometimes. A more current pick would have to be Renee Zellweger, (but again I have liked at least one of her movies).
6. An actor/actress that someone close to you really loves that you can't stand or vice versa? An easy one- I love the Marx Brothers, my wife just doesn’t get them and she can’t stand the Three Stooges. She isn’t much of a classic film fan to begin with, but she loves musicals.
7. An actor/actress that you both agree on completely? That would probably be Jane Powell for classic movies and currently, Sandra Bullock.
8. Complete this sentence: Virginia O'Brien is to Ethel Merman as... …Freddie Bartholomew is to Mickey Rooney? Good gravy what kind of sentence is that?
9. What is your favorite film starring Ray Milland? I love The Big Clock!
10. You had to have seen this one coming: what is your favorite movie of the 1960s? This is impossible for me to answer, because I have really found there are so many from this time period that I love- everything from Goldfinger to Charade or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. However, I find that I keep revisiting In the Heat of the Night and find myself using it in my film and humanities class more and more. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film with so many nuances and great performances and themes. I just love it.
11. An actor/actress that you would take out of one film and put into a different movie that was released the same year? I don’t know- this is a hard one to think about, or recall over so many I’ve seen but I would think it would be interesting to take Sean Connery out of 1969’s little known The Red Tent and plug him back into Her Majesty’s Secret Service, just to see the difference, if any, in the tone of the film (which I’ve actually grown to appreciate more over the years- strong words for a Uber-Bond fan).
12. Who was your favorite of Robert Montgomery's leading ladies? Norma Shearer. But then, I absolutely adore Norma Shearer.
13. You think it would have been a disaster if what movie starred the actor/actress who was originally asked to star in it? Well, given recent revelations- Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in Back to the Future
14. An actor/actress who you will watch in any or almost any movie? Too many to choose from really, but I will pick one of each: Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. And did I tell you that I adore Norma Shearer? I think I did.
15. Your favorite Leslie Howard film and role? Well…strictly speaking Leslie Howard isn’t one of my favorites, but I do like him an awful lot in It’s Love I’m After, a great little film, and find him insufferable in Gone With the Wind.
16. You have been asked to host a marathon of four Barbara Stanwyck films. Which ones do you choose? Oh my, more like can I add some more to that list. Let’s see: The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, Remember the Night and Ball of Fire. NO- wait! How about, Clash by Night, The Furies, Meet John Doe and Sorry, Wrong Number. Dang. See what I mean?
17. What is, in your mind, the nearest to perfect comedy you have ever seen? Why? Now this is hard, because in a way, no movie is perfect, and even my favorite comedies have some weak points. However, the closest I’ve seen would have to be…A Night at the Opera. Blazing Saddles for a more modern pick.
18. You will brook no criticism of what film? I will generally concede that not every film will completely win over every single person. Impossible. But if you have something bad to say about my favorite holiday film of all time, A Christmas Story- well, let’s just say you’d better not do it when I’m in the room. You can even criticize Casablanca in my face- I’ll control myself. But don’t talk bad about my boy Ralphie.
19. Who is your favorite Irish actress? Maureen O’Hara. Is there any doubt.
20. Your favorite 1940s movie starring Ginger Rogers? The Major and the Minor
21. Do you enjoy silent movies? Oh yes, very much so. I would venture to say more so in the last 10 years, but I’ve always loved them. I think one of the barriers for modern audiences is beyond the silence itself is how modern venues (DVD, VHS, etc) doesn’t always get the frame rate correct which makes it seem hurried, choppy or even static. But get the speed of the film right (which can be difficult to do) and a good preservation and remastering can make all the difference in the world. I show clips of several films in one of my Humanities class and the one they beg to see more of the most is Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.
22. What is your favorite Bette Davis film? You must never speak of this again in the presence of other males, but I am a sucker for All This and Heaven Too.
23. Your favorite onscreen Hollywood couple? So many I love, but I have been going out of my way to try and see every single film Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn did together. And that’s just because I’ve seen all of the William Powell and Myrna Loy films. Several times. So tie between those two couples.
24. This one is for the girls, but, of course, the guys are welcome to answer, too: who is your favorite Hollywood costume designer? Uhhh…umm…
25. To even things out a bit, here's something the boys will enjoy: what is your favorite tough action film? Man! How do I choose. Sort of unfair because it could encompass many different genres – but I will play ball and say: Rio Bravo.
26. You are currently gaining a greater appreciation for which actor(s)/actress(es)? Actor: Richard Widmark Actress: Joan Crawford
27. Franchot Tone: yes or no? Sure, in small doses. 28. Which actors and/or actresses do you think are underrated? Mae Clarke- her soulful, subtle performance in the original Waterloo Bridge won my heart and admiration forever. I think she was talented and not only underrated, but underutilized in her films and is unjustly forgotten today. Even though a leading lady in the 1930s, she only went on to small or bit parts in films in the 40s, 50s and 60s. She was in some important films in Hollywood History, and yet is treated almost like a footnote- like "the girl who got smashed with the grapefruit." She deserves better.
29. Which actors and/or actresses do you think are overrated? James Dean, hands down. Really. Three films and - to me - a one note performance in each of them.
30. Favorite actor? I really have a hard time with “favorites” because I love so many different performers and for different reasons. So I don’t have one favorite. But I will say I will watch almost anything with James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and William Powell.
31. Favorite actress? See above: Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Shearer, Myrna Loy…OK, just see this list.
32. Of those listed, who is the coolest: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, or Patrick Stewart? Steve McQueen.
33. What is your favorite movie from each of these genres: Comedy: A Night at the Opera Swashbuckler: Robin Hood (1938-natch) Film noir: The Big Sleep Musical: Tie between Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Singing in the Rain Holiday: A Christmas Story Hitchcock: North By Northwest
As the pig says, "that's all folks." I tried to be as honest as possible, shooting from the hip in some cases. What do you think? Anything I missed or didn't consider? Got a point to argue with me? Go ahead and sound off in the comments thread.
May those who gave all rest in peace, and may those who survived find peace and feel the arms of a grateful nation. Let us not forget, and let us honor our veterans on this day and all days. "Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God."
I've been very interested, in the last year or so, in the stories behind our Christmas music traditions. Who wrote our carols and why? What motivated them? Some songs seem to be motivated by just the holiday season itself, but with some songs, the motivations seem to be deeper, more personal. Last year, I wrote this post concerning the story behind Longfellow's poem Christmas Bells, that became our beloved hymn, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. I will try to continue this series this year as well, with the origins of other Christmas songs. In the meantime please enjoy this repost, the first in a planned series...
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of our nation’s most beloved poets, in addition to the many poems that have become engrained in our country’s conscience, also gave us the words to one of our most beloved Christmas carols. Longfellow’s poem, Christmas Bells was written in December of 1863, during not only one of the darkest periods of Longfellow’s life, but that of the nation as well; The Civil War. As with many literary works, the inspiration and circumstances which led to Longfellow taking up the pen began sometime before that dark, yet in the end, hopeful, December…
Longfellow married Frances Appleton on July 13th 1843, and they began to raise their family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. First came a son, Charles in 1844. Then over the years the Longfellows added four more children to their growing family: Ernest, Alice, Edith, and Allegra. In 1861, the Civil War had begun, and tragedy struck the Longfellow household. Frances was fatally burned in the library of their house in July of 1861. Henry was dumbstruck with grief. He has his children, but the joy was out of his life. When the holidays arrived, Longfellow wrote: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following year when Christmas arrived, he wrote in his journal: “A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me.”
The war continued to cast a grim pallor upon families in the North and the South in 1863. Charles Appleton Longfellow was now 17 and eager to make his mark by joining the military. His father disapproved, but Charles ran away from home and petitioned Captain W.H. McCartney, commanding Battery A of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery to enlist. Captain McCartney, familiar with Charles and his family, wrote to get his permission. By this time, perhaps knowing Charles wouldn’t give in, Henry reluctantly agreed.
Charles turned out to be quite adept as a soldier, and a skilled leader. In fact, when Henry thought he might help his son by seeking the aid of some famous friends, including a US Senator, to secure a commission, he was pleased to learn Charles had earned his commission and advancement on his own merits. Now a Second Lieutenant, Charles saw action at Chancellorsville, Culpepper and many other skirmishes. In November, during the New Hope Church campaign in Virginia, Charles was shot in the left shoulder. The bullet nicked his spine and exited his right shoulder, barely missing paralyzing him. Charles was taken in with the other wounded into the church. After the battle, Charles was sent with other wounded back to Washington DC.
On December 1st, Henry received word about Charles and rushed to Washington DC, and then brought Charles back to Cambridge to recover. It has barely been two years since the loss of his wife, the loss of his first born son seemed to be too much to comptemplate. But his son had survived thus far, and was recuperating. In the midst of still grieving for his wife, Longfellow found hope anew in the survival and return of his son to his home. It was during that time in December of 1863, while nursing his son back to health, Longfellow penned the words to the poem, Christmas Bells:
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!
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born 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!
Charles was unable to recover sufficiently to rejoin his unit, but did survive his wounds. He was discharged from the Union Army in 1864. Longfellow’s poem not only expresses his previous despair, but then it also bears witness of his newfound hope. The Bells that often rang out during the holidays had for two years did nothing but remind him of loss, and did nothing to lift his spirits. And, as he wrote in several stanzas, the War also paralleled his feelings of despair- that the Bells did nothing but mock those who had lost – that there was no chance for that old hominy of Peace on Earth Good Will to Men. And yet, Longfellow was able to find hope, through the survival of his son, and realized that God did not sleep- despite the war, the destruction and the loss. God was not dead, and that the Bells seemed to ring louder in the war- to bring more hope to mankind- that one day “The Wrong shall fail/ The Right prevail/ With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Eventually Longfellow’s poem was set to music, initially in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, which provided the traditionally known hymn. It has been rearranged several more times, but the best known of these is the famous arrangement by Johnny Marks, who also wrote Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Marks’ arrangement seems to be the more popular modern version as it has been recorded by many artists from Bing Crosby Kate Smith and Frank Sinatra to Sarah McLachlan and Johnny Cash. It’s popularity as a Christmas Carol is only matched by its profound attachment to our National heritage and culture.
The stanzas specifically referring to the War were removed for the music arrangements and some of the lines were rearranged, but the message of newfound hope and faith in God, and a desire for goodwill towards all men, even in the midst of our darkest days, still comes through. Longfellow’s story of tragedy and loss, and newfound hope is one that should resonate with anyone who has experienced loss, or has been lost, and question the purpose of their lives or how anyone could wish another Merry Christmas. Stop for a moment and look for the hope and listen for the faint peels of the Bells as they try hard to ring out their message to all. If we stop looking, we will never find it. But if we recognize it when it brought to us, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, we can also realize that God is not dead, nor doth he sleep, and that hope is there and His arm is outstretched to us. And more than anything else, perhaps we need to realize that peace on earth, goodwill towards men starts with us. Goodwill doesn’t stop and start with Government, leaders, Actors, Celebrities or anyone else. It’s everyone’s own responsibility. We need to find that peace within us first, and then impart that peace, in the form of goodwill, towards all others. It is my fondest wish that we will all remember Longfellow’s story and his words from the carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. For the true message of the carol is to share with others- I also was once without hope, but I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day- and I heard the message of hope and peace – for all. And it filled my heart.
To all of our friends and their families who celebrate, we at the Shelf would like to wish you a very peaceful and happy Hanukkah. Some interesting video and history about Hanukkah can be found at History.com.