Day 18: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Today’s carol is perhaps the most personal and heartfelt of any I know. I have always loved listening to its powerful message.

During the Civil War, Charles Appleton Longfellow joined the cause as a Union soldier, without the blessing of his father, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In November of 1863, Charles was severely wounded in Virginia. Around the same time, Henry’s wife Frances was killed in an accidental fire.

Deep in grief, because of the war and his family tragedies, Longfellow wrote today’s carol, first published as “Christmas Bells,” on Christmas Day 1864. It was originally seven stanzas, but two were specific to the war, and were later omitted as the poem became a carol in 1872. I’ve included all seven here, as they more fully express the emotions of the poet:

 “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!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
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!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
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!”

It might be war or the injury of a child or the death of a spouse. Or it might be a broken marriage, financial woes, or just general confusion. But we have all been there. We have all found ourselves wondering at one time or another if God is really there, and if He is, if He really cares. We’ve all basically said or thought the same thing as Longfellow in the sixth stanza, after considering our plight: “There is no peace on earth” – not among people, not within my heart.

But the message of Christmas stills stands in the face of such pain and gloom, as Jesus comes to declare that He is, in fact:

Wonderful Counselor
Mighty God
Everlasting Father
Prince of Peace
(Isaiah 9:6 ESV)

And with that bold assurance, we can finally – as Longfellow – still hear the Christmas bells, which remind us of the power and presence of the Almighty and Sovereign God of all creation. And we can sing confidently:

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!”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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