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!
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!
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.
These stanzas are from the poem Christmas Bells, written by American Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow while our country was in the midst of the Civil War. They came to mind recently because I was thinking about how much I look forward to the Holidays each year, and because the words so beautifully recognize that we can choose to hope. If ever there was a time to nurture hope, it is now.
Longfellow, famous in his own lifetime for his poetry, had known great tragedy and suffering. He suffered from painful Neuralgia and had poor eyesight. His young wife Mary lost their baby in the six month of pregnancy. The loss of the child was a terrible blow, but within weeks Mary also died of complications from the miscarriage.
A little less than a decade later, after a seven year courtship, Henry married Francis Appleton whom he fondly called Fanny. Henry and Fanny had six children, including a daughter who died within her first year of life.
In their eighteenth year of marriage, Henry was napping and Fanny was sealing an envelope with candle wax when Fanny’s dress caught fire. Henry was awakened and tried to help her but the flames had engulfed his wife.
She died the following day. Henry’s face was badly burned and he grew a beard to cover his scars, which became his signature look for the rest of his days.
Two years later Henry’s seventeen year old son Charles ran away to join the Union army. Charles tried to join up on his own, but the commander in Washington D.C. knew Longfellow and contacted Henry to ask his permission for Charles to serve. Henry reluctantly consented to allow his son to enlist. Within months Charles was back home suffering with typhoid fever and malaria.
Once sufficiently recovered Henry’s son Charles returned to war. Henry soon received word that Charles had been badly wounded by a confederate bullet, and Henry rushed to his son’s side.
It was during this visit with his son, amid the trauma of war, after so much personal anguish, and facing the prospect of yet another loss, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned his poem Christmas Bells.
Hearing the church bells ringing against the backdrop of civil war cannons prompted Henry to pick up a pen and page on December 25, 1863. The reader can sense his anger about war, the sadness and loss of faith. But the Bells ring again, and on that Christmas day so long ago, Henry’s heart recognized that hope can always ring louder than despair.
Henry’s poem became famous as a Christmas anthem of faith and hope after it was set to music in 1872. Many other musical arrangements of this song have made their way into our yuletide traditions, and artists from Elvis Presley to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have recorded their own versions of what has come to be known as the Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. My favorite version was recorded in 2008 by the musical group Casting Crowns.
July is the time of year when I begin to think about Christmas festivities. As I prepare this year I will remember this poem and song; the meaning is timeless and larger than any Holiday observance. My wish is that we all give this song a listen. And like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, no matter what happens in our world, we hear the bells over the cannons, and choose hope.