The Bells on Christmas Day

The winter of 1863 was a grim one for American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—it was a grim one for the entire country. The Civil War had been raging for two years. Communities across the nation lay blanketed in an aching grief. Like years previous, Christmas had come. But it’s hard to believe it was much of a cheery one.

Still, over this bleak backdrop, Longfellow would paint in words the triumphant, resounding hope the Christmas season heralds. Despite the grief knocking at his door, a powerful song of hope pounded even louder.

The opening stanza of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” reads:

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!

From the Daily Signal

That year, Union forces had won significant victories—repulsing Gen. Robert E. Lee’s lunge for Washington, D.C., at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and seizing Vicksburg, Mississippi—a vital Confederate stronghold that held their supply line open with the west.

Still, the Confederacy refused to relent, and the war dragged on. 1863 saw the bloodiest battles of the Civil War—Gettysburg as well as the Battle of Chickamuga. They alone cost a cumulative total of over 85,000 casualties.

Grief filled the hearts of countless families who lost loved ones to the war. Though his initial bout with it was unrelated to the war, Longfellow’s loss struck deeply and intimately.

In 1861, his second wife Frances’ dress caught fire while she sealed envelopes with hot wax and an open flame. Despite Longfellow’s best efforts to save her, she succumbed to her burns. The poet collapsed into a depression.

His journal entry from the Christmas of 1862 opens a window into his suffering: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

The next year, 1863, war trudged forward on its merciless sweep over the country, and tragedy threatened to strike at Longfellow again when son, Charley—one of his six children—fled home to join the Union army in defiance to his father’s wishes.

Army life was brutal and dangerous. The war was fought savagely, resulting in unprecedented slaughter. For the soldiers who managed to survive combat, an even more lethal foe lay in wait: disease. It killed indiscriminately and took twice those killed in battle.

In June, Charley fell ill, struck down with fever. Longfellow retrieved him from a hospital in Washington, and the two returned to Massachusetts.

Charley, however, recovered and returned to the fighting. In November 1863, he caught a bullet in the back while fighting at New Hope, Virginia.

With what must have been carried out with a sickly sense familiarity, Longfellow once again retrieved his son from a Washington hospital.

That Christmas, however, amidst the anguish of grief, something in Longfellow put to paper a poem that would become a carol sung to this day. Here are just a few stanzas that would make it into the musical adaptation so many have come to know and cherish:

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!

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.

It’s hard to imagine how one so battered by tragedy could manage to grasp the hope and resolve and triumph of the Christmas season.

That one can find hope in such a dire state doesn’t make much sense. But then again, neither does the truth in Longfellow’s words. Christ’s birth has never ceased to confound. For those of us who profess faith in him, it’s an offering of everlasting mercy and peace for a cold and brutal world that doesn’t deserve it.

As did Longfellow, may we find solace in this truth that resounds louder than the mightiest canon of war, calamity, or trouble of this world this Christmas season.

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