I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

One of America’s great poets was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The year 1860 found him happy in his life, enjoying a widening recognition, and elated over the election of Abraham Lincoln, which he believed signaled the triumph of freedom and redemption for the nation. The following year the Civil War began.

On July 9, 1861, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, was near an open window sealing locks of her daughter’s hair, using hot sealing wax, when suddenly her dress caught fire and engulfed her with flames. Henry, sleeping in the next room, was awaked by her screams. As he desperately tried to put out the fire and save his wife, he was severely burned on his face and hands. Fanny died the next day. Longfellow’s severe burns would not even allow him to attend her funeral. His white beard, which so identified him, was one of the results of the tragedy – the burn scars on his face made shaving almost impossible. In his diary for Christmas day 1861 he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.”

In 1862 the toll of war dead began to mount. In his diary for that year he wrote of Christmas, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” In 1863 his son who had run away to join the Union army was severely wounded and returned home in December. There is no entry in Longfellow’s diary for that Christmas. But on Christmas Day 1864, at age 57, Longfellow sat down to try to capture, if possible, the joy of the season. He began:

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.

As he came to the third stanza, he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country. The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past. Days looked dark, and he no doubt asked himself how he could write about peace on earth, good will to men in a war-torn country where brother was fighting against brother and father against son. But he stayed at the task and wrote:

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.

In many respects, it seems as if Longfellow could have been writing of our kind of day. Then, as all of us should do, he turned his thoughts to the One who gives true and perfect peace, and continued writing:

Then peeled 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.”

And so came into being the marvelous Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.” May God’s marvelous peace and amazing grace fill your hearts this Christmas Season.

With a thankful heart,

Pastor Bill