The Hope of Christmas Bells -- A Carol for Our Time
Like millions of others, I watched and listened to portions of the funeral service for President George Herbert Walker Bush. The majestic National Cathedral in Washington, DC was packed. The music was magnificent. The messages and reflections brought tears as well as smiles. The solemn pageantry left a lasting impression of having been on holy ground.
As powerful as was the touching eulogy by son George, it’s a few words from Senator Alan Simpson reflecting on his old friend that I will remember most as he recalled the elder Bush saying, "When the really tough choices come, it's the country not me. It's not about Democrats or Republicans, it's for our country that I fought."
Simpson went on to call Bush “a man of such grace, humility;” and “those [like his friend] who travel the high road of humility in Washington DC are not bothered by heavy traffic.” Even so, Simpson noted that the former president had a very serious flaw. Although he loved a good joke “he never ever could remember a punch line. And I mean never.”
“So, the punch line for George Herbert Walker Bush is this. You would have wanted him on your side. He never lost his sense of humor. Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.That's what humor is. He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew. Hatred corrodes the container it's carried in.”
That’s the line I will never forget as a word of prophetic warning to a nation divided and seemingly at war with itself. Hatred corrodes the container it's carried in.
A little more than a century and a half ago our nation was divided by a conflict that spilled more American blood than any other war. It was near the end of that tragic divide that one of America's best-known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, penned a poem called “Christmas Bells” on December 25th1864 which gave birth to the Christmas carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin took five of Longfellow’s original seven stanzas (omitting two which contained references to the American Civil War), rearranged them slightly and set them to the musicwe often sing at Advent or Christmas.
When Longfellow penned the words to his original poem, America was still months away from Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th1865. His poem, which follows, reflected the preceding four years of despair, while still ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace.
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!"
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."
Kristen O’Neal, a writer whose work explores faith and culture, calls this poem and the carol that it birthed “a carol for our age.” Looking back on 2018, she sees the curtain pulled back to reveal some of the worst things people can do to one another. This year “has uncovered abuse and corruption at every level,” she says. “Spilled blood, separated families, failure of justice after failure of justice, each headline hitting so quickly that it feels impossible to give anything the attention it deserves. There will be more before the end of the year; there will be more before you even finish reading this piece.”
The conclusion? “It’s hard to rejoice in an atmosphere like this,” says O’Neal. “ ‘The most wonderful time of the year’ does not seem wonderful; shopping, twinkle lights, hot chocolate, ice skating and the bright bombardment of advertisements fill the space like cotton candy, too sweet and flimsy” (in Christianity Today, December 2018 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/december/longfellow-carol-for-despairing-i-heard-bells.html).
The poem and carol tell of the author's despair, upon hearing Christmas bells, that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men." Yet, it concludes with bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men.
As with any composition that touches a hearer’s heart it flowed from the author’s own experience.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow married Frances Appleton on July 13, 1843, and they settled down in a house overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, MA. They were blessed with the birth of their first child, Charles, on June 9, 1844. Eventually, the Longfellow household numbered five children—Charles, Ernest, Alice, Edith, and Allegra.
Tragedy then struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. Confederate Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired the opening salvos of the American Civil War on April 12 and Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in the library of their home on July 10.
While melting some sealing wax with a candle, the light material of Fanny's dress ignited immediately wrapping her in flames. Her husband, wakened from a nap, tried desperately to extinguish the fire as best he could, first with a rug and then his own body, but she had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning; and Henry Longfellow’s facial burns were so severe that he was unable to attend his own wife’s funeral. Longfellow’s trademark beard that hid his burned face resulted from his inability to shave after the tragedy. Profoundly saddened, Longfellow published nothing for the next two years.
The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after the incident, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." Longfellow's journal entry for December 25, 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow's journal.
Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote "Christmas Bells" when the re-election of Abraham Lincoln or the possible end of the terrible war may have occasioned the poem.
This is the dark backdrop and stage setting of the familiar Christmas carol, which some call “the cynic’s carol” because of the next-to-last verse:
“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!’”
However, it’s better seen as a desperate and bitter carol from someone whose world has been shattered. As a result, neither the carol nor the poem is the usual cotton candy Christmas tripe we hear in a mall or on the radio this time of year. Instead, there’s a beating heart, laid bare in seven stanzas of gut-wrenching words.
O’Neal notes that “the original poem, like the song, begins with an image of merrily ringing bells, a marker of the incarnation and a herald of sacred things. The bells remind him of everything that should be made right by the sound of Christmas: peace on earth; goodwill to men; wrongs made right; night crossing over into day, bright and holy. But Longfellow could not grasp the joy of the season. His heart was heavy.”
The two verses in the poem about the Civil War, omitted from the song, speak of how “the cannon thundered in the South,” drowning out the sound of the bells, and “an earthquake rent / the hearth-stones of a continent.” So, when the next-to-last verse laments, “and in despair I bowed my head,” it’s a desperate cry to heaven.
While not now enmeshed in a literal civil war, fissures and fractures breaking our nation’s foundation are becoming more evident with each passing day. Those with power abuse it; those without it suffer. The daily news cycles detail the horrors.
Again, O’Neal hits it on the head when she says that we “grieve globally now, stretched to the edges of our empathy. We see Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, dictator-led violence spiraling in Venezuela. ‘We know,’ like Paul, ‘that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ (Rom. 8:22). ... It feels exactly like Longfellow noted in his journal in 1861, at the cusp of war: We, too, are living in ‘weary days with wars and rumors of wars, and marching of troops, and flags waving, and people talking. No reading but reading of newspapers’.”
Yet, in spite of it all, Longfellow holds to the hope of the gospel as the last stanza declares triumphantly:
“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.’”
Even as he finds himself deep in the valley of the shadow of death, Longfellow holds fast. “Where’s God in all this? Where’s justice?” he asks. “He is here, working beside us. God’s kingdom is coming,” he answers. God’s notasleep. He’s wide awake. As the Psalmist reminds us, “He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:3,4).
Despair envelopes the world in a thick, heavy darkness that tries to drag us down into the depths. Hate, strong in our day, threatens to corrode us from the inside-out. If we’re not careful, the sounds of hatred, distain and selfishness drown out everything else until we can’t hear God’s voice at all.
So, what do we do when we have no hope left, when we can’t pull ourselves up? It’s then that we hear God say to us, “Get up!” And, when we can’t, He fills us with the Spirit, grabs us by the hand and pulls us to our feet.
Where is God in times like these? He’s here with us. He’s not dead. He’s not sleeping. Rather, He has come down to earth, in-fleshed and incarnate, bringing grace and peace, compassion and justice. For He is Immanuel: God with us. He’s the One who is good, who is strong, who is loving, who is wise and who is faithful. We can trust Him ... even now ... and always.
[Please check out Kristen O’Neal’s article which is the source and inspiration for many of the above reflections. You can find it at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/december/longfellow-carol-for-despairing-i-heard-bells.html]