Henry’s Christmas Bells

I’m sure many of you have heard the Christmas Carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. It has been performed by many different musicians throughout time. The song is actually based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 1800s.

Longfellow was already a respected writer when he wrote this poem, but what makes this poem so astonishing are the events that led up to his publication of this poem. He was in a dark place following the death of the love of his life, Fanny. She died following a horrendous accident in which her nightgown caught on fire by a candle. Henry was heartbroken, grasping for strength to carry on for their 5 children.

During this time, Civil unrest was very present in the United States as the South was trying to secede from the Union. War was beginning between the North and the South with slavery being a main point of emphasis. Henry’s oldest son, Charley, much to his dismay, was in the military-fighting for the Union. (Henry preferred his son to stay out of battle).

Charley was wounded in battle with a prognosis of possible paralysis. It was while Charley was recovering in the Longfellow home that Henry was walking outside, and heard the church bells and felt compelled to pen his poem.

The parallels between his feelings at Christmastime in the 1860s and mine in 2020 are not lost on me. Towards the middle of Longfellow’s poem a selection reads “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!” He can’t even hear the chimes of peace on earth, good-will to men because of all the explosions and noise going on in the Civil War happening around him in his day to day life. It’s hard for us to ignore the Civil unrest we are facing today as well, isn’t it? Lest we get close to forgetting, all we have to do is long onto the internet and we are quickly acquainted to it.

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!”

He looked around and didn’t see peace anywhere. That’s easy for us right? Covid. The Election. The race discussions that have once again become paramount. It’s easy for us to feel depressed and overwhelmed right now. It would be justified if we didn’t feel too much in the Christmas spirit this year.

But I love how this poem ends:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

We have hope for brighter days. God does not sleep, nor does He slumber. One day, all wrongs will be righted. The righteous will one day prevail. In the midst of Longfellow’s unhappiness, the bells reminded him of that truth. I hope you take a moment to listen to the tune, or even read the poem-and take a minute to be reminded yourself.