The second Christmas song I want to speak about was written by one of American’s best-known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His poem, “Christmas Bells”, was composed on December 25, 1864. The poem originally had 7 stanzas, two of them containing reference to the Civil War. We now sing five of the stanzas in the song, “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day”, as rearranged in 1872 by John B. Calkin, who also wrote the memorable tune.
When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, American was still months away from the end of a bloody civil war. His words reflected the prior years of the war’s despair, while ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace.
As with any composition that touches the heart of the listener, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flowed from Longfellow’s personal experiences.
Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. The opening shots of the civil War were fired on April 12 and Frances – nicknamed Fanny – was fatally burned in an accident at home. The day before her accident on that hot July morning, Fanny Longfellow wrote in her journal: “We are all sighing for a good sea breeze instead of this stifling land breeze filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat and Edie has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight.”
The next day, after trimming some of Edith’s beautiful thick curls, Fanny decided to preserve some of the clippings in an envelope sealed with wax. While melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few hot drops fell unnoticed on her dress. At that same moment, the greatly desired sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting Fanny’s dress and wrapping her in flames.
In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry’s study in the next room where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby, but undersized throw rug. The lightweight of the dress fabric coupled with the hoops allowed ample oxygen to feed the flames.
Failing to stop the fire with the rug, Henry tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances—severely burning his face, arms and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral. After the death of his wife, Henry was left to raise five children and manage the affairs of his home as a single parent.
The first Christmas after her death, Longfellow wrote in his journal: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote,” I can make no record of these days. Better to leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry of December 25, 1862, reads: " ‘A Merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
Almost a year later after that entry just weeks before Christmas, Longfellow received word that his 17 year old son had been gravely injured while fighting a battle in Virginia. Charles had run away and joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing or permission. A bullet had passed under his shoulder blades and damaged his spine.
That Christmas of 1863 received no mention in Longfellow’s journal—an eloquent silence during this anxious period.
The death of his wife and his son’s critical injuries were not the only tragedies in Mr. Longfellow’s life. Frances was his second wife and together they had a daughter also named Frances, who died when she was 17 months old. His first wife, Mary, died just a month after she miscarried during her sixth month of pregnancy.
This was a man who had every reason to pity himself and feel cranky about his condition. No wonder he wrote:
“And in despair I bowed by 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.”
Longfellow’s words were a heartfelt acknowledgement of painful personal and national circumstances. Fortunately, he was able to access a greater and deeper level of truth with these words:
“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.”
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of my favorite carols because it is so honest and yet in the end, so full of hope.
Longfellow’s dark cloud began to lift and his personal worldview revolved from night to day when he chose to focus on the truth that God lives and is ultimately in charge.
Because of misused agency and the hearts of men grown cold, we won’t ever have the type of “peace on earth” that so many long for. There will always be challenging and even unfair circumstances. We will get sick, lose loved ones, and have disappointments regarding our friends and our families. We may have trouble at work or school or live in areas where there are wars, rumors of wars, oppressive leaders and obnoxious drivers on the freeway.
Yet none of these conditions ultimately restrict our ability to feel peace. When we learn to put our trust and faith in our Heavenly Father, we can experience peace in our hearts—the kind of deep peace that does not depend on our outward circumstances.
Longfellow found a measure of peace even in his heartbreaking condition, as he acknowledged the truth that God’s loving will would ultimately triumph.
Sweet Mary knew the history of her people and had seen God’s hand in their deliverance from distressing events. She trusted that she could rely on similar help no matter what she might be called upon to experience.
Today, above all else, I am thankful for that little baby born in Bethlehem. Because of Him, we have a Savior who looks on us with compassion for our weakness. He learned through his own suffering how to comfort all those who come to him.
He is our true peace and an unfailing source of love and blessing. The words of Philippians 4:7 express it well:
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.