November 24, 2010

Christmas bells call for peace and generousity

As published in The Erin Advocate

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!”

That is an excerpt from I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It is one of my favourite carols, partly because it acknowledges that things are not always joyful as we put up our holiday trees. The words are from the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who at the time was grieving the loss of his wife in a fire, and the wounding of his son in the American Civil War.

Our country has been at war for almost a decade. I am proud of our soldiers, and I feel a stab of pain when any one of them is wounded or killed. But are Canadians able to feel the full measure of pain from the thousands of lives lost in this war? Does it only hit hard when a loved one is the victim? Do we feel anger, now that the Prime Minister has broken his commitment to bring the troops home in 2011? Or are we just numb – too tired after dealing with jobs and family matters to think about war and peace?

So at Christmas, comforting words flow over us once again, even though we know that peace on earth and good-will to men (and women) can be hard to find. It gets complicated when we hear that the more accurate translation of that passage is, "Peace among men with whom God is pleased." Are we among the favoured ones?

Christmas is a time of heightened expectations. There are many happy gatherings, but for some people it is a stressful and potentially depressing time, making obvious the gap between hopes and reality. Communities instinctively take notice that there are families who do not have enough money to celebrate the season well, and so we rally to help them.

It will never be enough, but it is still good to make charitable donations of time and money. Actions are always more helpful than words, and there is a natural instinct to take action locally – helping people with whom we share a bond, even if we do not know them personally.

For example, East Wellington Community Services (EWCS) makes a special effort to help its food bank clients at Christmas. People can make donations of cash, food and toys for the Christmas hampers. If you would like to sponsor a family, or find out more about how you could help EWCS make a difference, call Gillian Riseborough at 519-833-9696 or visit

Our televisions deliver to us a deluge of opportunities for Christmas giving, much of it based in Toronto. People in the Town of Erin often do not feel they have much in common even with Guelph and the rest of Wellington County, and are not aware of organizations with a mandate to help the whole region.

For example, the Children's Foundation of Guelph and Wellington gives grants of up to $400 to low-income families to help cover the costs of kids' participation in sports, cultural and recreational activities. They support more than 12,000 children through school-based breakfast, snack and lunch programs.

At Christmas, they run Adopt-A-Family, which provided gifts to 600 families last year. Donors (individuals or groups) get a wish list from the adopted family. The families are referred by social service agencies or schools and have to qualify for the assistance. Donors buy presents and deliver them to the Foundation, which operates a wrapping warehouse at this time of year. For more information, call 519-826-9551 or visit

Christmas charity – how much, and how far it is spread – is a very personal matter, which depends one how you perceive yourself in relation to your neighbour. For some, it is simply a habit that makes them feel good. For others it is a matter of social conscience, or of religious devotion and tradition.

Longfellow lived in a more religious era, but even in the 1860s, Christmas was becoming a secular event. His famous Christmas song is no hymn. It makes no mention of Jesus Christ – nor of praise, thanks or salvation. It ends with a simple, optimistic message from the church bells, one in which we may take comfort, if we choose.

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!”