Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Bells

Last week we went to our last Christmas program at Dorsey Elementary school. We’ve been staunch supporters of the school since Sarah entered Kindergarten eight years ago.

We had to sit through a PTA meeting but it was easy enough to ignore and I used the time to talk to my daughters. Come on folks, cut me some slack here--I talked very quietly and you know very well what I'm talking about.  I think there is a special dispensation for talking during a reading of the PTA minutes and financial report. It would have bored the Virgin Mary herself and I’ll bet she would have quietly gone over the grocery list with Joseph if they had had PTA when Jesus was in the fifth grade.

However, there is no delight more pure than an elementary school program. They will never again in their lives be as innocent or enthusiastic as they are in elementary school. I know from experience that these kids will not be as excited to perform for their parents in junior and senior high. They will be trying their hardest to pretend they do not have parents; that they gave birth to themselves, are independently wealthy and knowing how to play Angry Birds on a cell phone will be enough to land them a really great job someday.

This was a public school so they couldn’t mention You Know Who but that’s OK. We enjoyed the play, whose plot I instantly forgot, and we enjoyed the songs and Santa hats. Essie had three lines but I missed them trying to find my camera so I could capture the event to re-live in years to come. I was so busy ensuring that I could re-live the event that I missed experiencing it even once.

Christmas music is high on my list of favorite music. I’ve got a lot of peppy Christmas songs on my iPod that are great for driving down the road. But for sitting down and being enfolded by love I want to be in church. There’s something so magical about a dark, cold Christmas Eve with Silent Night playing as you leave the church. Knowing that a whole month’s worth of preparation is now over and there’s nothing to do now but enjoy yourselves.

Silent Night makes Christmas but I’ve also become a connoisseur of bells.

For some reason Christmas seems to be the only time of year the bells come out to play. For what they lack in exposure is made up by the quality of their sound. And there’s just a jillion different kinds of bells at Christmas. In one movie they tell us “Every time you hear a bell ring that means an angel got her wings.” Then in Polar Express we find out that you can’t hear the bells unless you believe. Bells get to be a major player in the orchestra of life during Christmas.

I remember the Salvation Army bell ringer one year in Mississippi. I had just arrived in Pearlington to work at the PDA camp to help with the Katrina recovery. By this time I had been to Mississippi about four or five times as a volunteer and knew a lot of the people there but I was still startled to find a familiar face so far from home. It was Miss Johnnie ringing the bell by the Salvation Army bucket. Miss Johnnie was the lady who cooked lunch every day at the First Missionary Baptist Church. Any volunteer in town could get a hot lunch there and it was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Miss Johnnie was famous for making the best cornbread in the world. I stopped for a hug and conversation. We talked about five minutes catching up on news of people we both knew. And the whole time she kept ringing that bell like Jesus Christ Himself had personally asked her to ring it. She would pause in our conversation to shout out a hearty “Merry Christmas” to someone then pick up the conversation where she left off. It was the happiest sound I’ve ever heard from a Salvation Army bell. And I think it was because Miss Johnnie was ringing it.

I remember one Christmas Eve when the girls were little. Midnight Worship was almost over and it was late enough that I knew I wouldn’t have much trouble getting them down for the night. Everything was in order for Christmas morning. Close to the end of the worship service Beaven got up and left the pew without an explanation. This always hacked me off. He was always coming home late from work or working on weekends or having to leave in the middle of the night to go fix something at the TV station. Couldn’t he have at least spent the entire worship service with his family? My mood turned gray as my mind mumbled dark complaints.

The end of the service came and the church bell started ringing at midnight. The minister told us: “It’s Christmas Day” and I was instantly relaxed. The bell kept ringing in the new day and I realized that was where Beaven went. It was him ringing the bell.

There is one bell sound that may be my favorite: the Zimbalstern. Margaret, our organist, will add the sound at the end of a song to give just the right touch of delicate joy. She knows how much I like the sound and I feel sometimes that she’s playing it just for me. It reminds me of the sound ice crystals might make as they fall through the air; a little stronger sound than snow but welcoming none the less--the sound of wonder, the sound of love.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best.  (You might even get the song with Frank Sinatra on iTunes like I did.)
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.'

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 its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
May you have bells this Christmas: massive Cathedral bells, tiny sleigh bells, Salvation Army bells, angel bells on Christmas trees, Zimbalstern in a quiet sanctuary. May you hear them like the child in Polar Express heard them. May you believe in Love.

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