While most find joy, happiness and peace during the holiday season, this time of year can be terribly difficult for others. Personal tragedies, hardships, and even loneliness can lead people down a road of utter despair. That is exactly where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found himself when he wrote his poem that inspired, “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day.”
Longfellow was taking a peaceful nap one afternoon when a bloodcurdling scream come from his wife, Fannie. He rushed to her side to find her dress caught fire. Fannie was in flames and he only had seconds to save her.
Longfellow grabbed a rug. He desperately tried to smother the flames engulfing his wife.
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Realizing the rug was not working, Longfellow covered Fannie with his own body. As a result, he suffered severe burns on his face. They left both mental and physical scars that haunted him the rest of his life.
Longfellow failed to save Fannie despite his best and most heroic efforts. She died the next morning, July 10, 1861. Longfellow’s own injuries prevented him from attending her funeral. However, his physical state could not compare to the wounds her death left on his heart.
Fannie’s passing left Longfellow alone to raise their family. He had to find a way to pull himself together, not for himself, but for their six children. Longfellow grew a beard to try to hide his physical scars. Yet, he wasn’t sure if it was for the sake of others or for himself.
Two years later, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, snuck off to Washington D.C. He wanted to enlist in President Lincoln’s Union Army. When Longfellow found out, he was torn. The prospect of his son going to war dismayed him. On the other hand, Charles’ determination made him proud.
Longfellow eventually wrote several letters to prominent friends on Charles’ behalf. He encouraged them to commission Charles as an office. However, his efforts were unnecessary. Charles was a natural soldier. Due to his own merits, the Army offered him a commission as Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Charles readily accepted.
As with many soldiers, Charles contracted typhoid fever. He retuned to his father’s house to recover. The illness may have been a blessing in disguise as it prevented Charles from participating in the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. Charles soon recovered and rejoined his unit the next month. A few months later, on December 1st, he received a life-threatening gunshot wound at the Battle of New Hope Church.
Longfellow dropped everything when word of Charles’ condition reached the family via telegram. He and his son, Earnest, quickly set out in the somber, winter weather to retrieve Charles. They traveled from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Washington to bring Charles home to again recuperate.
This was Longfellow’s life on Christmas morning 1863. His beloved wife was gone. His eldest son was clinging to life in the next room. The states were at war with thousands of America’s sons dying and no end in site. Longfellow’s existence seemed dreary and wearisome.
And then the bells began to ring. They echoed through the town streets. Angelic choruses of “Peace on Earth” saturated the air, rattling Longfellow’s heart.
The turmoil between the North and the South was only matched by the turmoil within his soul. As he listened, the following words filled his mind:
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!”
For many, this is where the poem ends; in hopelessness and discouragement. Pain, violence, death and distress filled Longfellow’s life for years now. However, he was able to continue his thought, finding hope and encouragement.
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.”
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep”. How many of us at similar times of desperation feel God has left us? We feel he’s just not listening. Even worse, that he doesn’t even exist. But here Longfellow realizes God is still with us and will always prevail. No matter how bleak things seem, God will be victorious, giving peace on earth.
These verses complete the last two stanzas of Longfellow’s longer poem entitled, “Christmas Bells”.
In 1872, English composer, organist and music teacher, John Baptiste Calkin, rearranged Longfellow’s poem. He also removed two stanza’s specifically regarding the Civil War. Calkin then set the words to music. The tender poem and memorable tune produced the beloved Christmas Classic, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”.
Longfellow adopted his phrase, “peace on earth, good-will to men,” from Luke 2:14. After Jesus’ birth, the angels appeared to the shepherds and sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (KJV) A more accurate translation is, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (NIV) The angels’ praise of peace was not that peace would be felt by the whole earth. It was that the birth of Jesus Christ would bring peace and comfort to believers.
Since the fall of Adam, the world lives under the curse of sin. As Longfellow experienced, life is full of grief, sorrow, and pain. However, God sent the peace of a savior to those who believe. It is a gift of hope and reassurance in a world that often times seems permeated with misery and anxiety. What an inspiration to have Longfellow discover and share that true peace, knowing the tribulation of his own personal heartache.
So this Christmas, as things in the world seem completely out of control, let us find joy and happiness in the “Reason for the Season”. May the blessed peace of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ bring “peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Have a Very, Merry Christmas.
But that’s just my 2 cents.