Christmas Bells


Christmas 1864 was a dreary one for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he sat down to draft his poem Christmas Bells.  He had been through a lot of pain and anguish over the recent years.  The nation was in the throes of a costly domestic conflict.  The American Civil War would eventually end the lives of roughly 620,000 Americans, two percent of the population.  The horrible reality of that war would eventually come home to Longfellow. Though stories of war tragedies would bring the nation to collectively mourn, in 1861 Longfellow suffered a more personal tragedy.  Out of that personal tragedy and the horrors of the Civil War, Longfellow would pen his hopeful Christmas Bells poem on Christmas Day 1864.  That poem would later become the inspiration for the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

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!

“Peace on earth, good will to men” seemed distant, unrealistic, if not an outright lie. On July 10, 1861, in their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, had just finished clipping some of their daughter’s curly hair.  In an act of sentiment, Fannyfannylongfellow2wanted to preserve Edith’s locks as a keepsake.  She placed them in an envelope, and began melting wax with a candle to seal it.  While doing this her dress became engulfed in flames from the candle.  Longfellow, who had been napping in another room, rushed to her aid, and attempted to use his own body to extinguish the flames.  He would sustain severe burns to his arms, hands, and face.  But, sadly, his wife died on the morning of July 11, just two days before their 18th wedding anniversary.  Too wounded from his burns and grief stricken, Longfellow did not attend his wife’s funeral.

A profound melancholy fell on Longfellow, though he tried to conceal it. A month after his wife’s death he confided in his wife’s sister, Mary Appleton Mackintosh, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not. I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly—as I have from the beginning—for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end.”

That first Christmas after Fanny’s death was a disconsolate one for Longfellow. He wrote “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”  A year later, his journal entry for December 25, 1862 was no more cheerful than the one from the year before.  “A Merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.”

longfellowfamily_28956The death of his dear wife Fanny was not the first of Longfellow’s tragedies. In 1835 while in the Netherlands his first wife, Mary, became ill, miscarried their child, and died shortly thereafter.  Then in 1848, after having been remarried, Longfellow’s daughter, also named Fanny, died at 1 year old.  His September 11, 1848 journal entry reads “Lower and lower.  Through the silent, desolate room the clocks tick loud; they all seem laboring on with the fatal hour!…At half past four this afternoon she died.  Fanny and Mary sat with me by her bed side.  Her breathing grew fainter, fainter—fainter, and ceased without a sigh, without a flutter—perfectly quiet, perfectly painless.  The sweetest expression was on her face.  Death seemed lovelier than life.  The room was full of angels where she lay!  And when they had departed—she was gone!”

The man who had buried two wives and two children would later be touched by the horrors of the Civil War.

In March of 1863 the Civil War had been raging for nearly two years. Longfellow’s son, Charles, left their Massachusetts home unannounced, traveled to Washington, D.C., andtumblr_n9r7yeewsl1rd3evlo1_500 enlisted in the Union Army.  He attached himself to the an artillery regiment of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery under the command of Captain W.H. McCartney.  Within two weeks of his enlistment, Charles secured a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, likely through some family connections (perhaps because of his famous father, or because of his aunt who was married to a Lieutenant Colonel in the unit).

As a new 2nd Lieutenant in April and May 1863, Charles saw little action, spending most of his time guarding the supply wagons during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Then in early June, Charles fell ill with typhoid fever or malaria.  His father rushed to his side, making the trip from Massachusetts.  For the next two and a half months, Charles would be laid up and miss the entire Battle of Gettysburg.  He returned to his unit on August 14.  In September 1863 Charles saw his first heavy action near Culpeper, Virginia.

mineruncampaignOn November 27, 1863, the day after Thanksgiving, his 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, part of General Meade’s Army of the Potomac, was the leading regiment in the march of the 2nd Calvary Division towards Gordonsville, Virginia. After coming through a clearing, the advancing Union troops were met with shot from the Confederate’s cavalry pickets.  In the initial skirmish of what would later be known as the “Mile Run Campaign,” Charles was shot through his shoulder.  The bullet entered his left shoulder, passed through his back, and before exiting under his right shoulder blade, it nicked his spinal cord.

henrywlongfellow1868During dinner at his home in Massachusetts on December 1, Longfellow received a telegram that erroneously informed him his son was severely wounded in the face. He immediately left for Washington, D.C., arriving on December 3. He was given a military pass to enter Virginia to look for his son.  Having found Charles in Alexandria, Virginia, Longfellow escorted him back to D.C.  There a military surgeon informed the elder Longfellow that his son might become paralyzed.  Although other surgeons gave a more hopeful prognosis, Charles’ recovery would be long and uncertain.

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!”

The church bells on Christmas rang out the message of the Gospel from Luke 2:14 “Glory christmas-bells2to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Yet, this declaration appeared to be a lie.  Profound sorrow, war, death and destruction permeated both the North and South.  What peace?  Brother was at war with brother.  What good will to men?  With the horror of seeing his wife engulfed in flames, and his son nearly lose his life in war, Longfellow despaired despite the calling of the Church bells.  Longfellow wrote to a friend “I have been through a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”  His journal did not capture his thoughts that Christmas of 1863.

But, his despair did not last.

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.” 

Amidst the set of his tragedies and hardships, on Christmas Day 1864 Longfellow captured his irrepressible hope in the midst of his circumstances. His experiences told him the Gospel was a lie, but, his trust in a God who is even able to raise the dead overwhelmed his sense of despair.  God is not dead!  He is not asleep.  He is not weak or without power.  When all was said and done, God, who so humbly entered this world that first Christmas morn, had shouted in triumph “It is finished!”  The work of redemption will prevail.  The work of evil will fail.  There will be peace on earth.  God and sinners will be reconciled.  No cannonade, no tragic death, no pain or suffering can prevent the triumph of Christmas.

mangerstar-lightThe hope announced by Christmas bells can still be heard. Can you hear them?  Though your circumstances may make it seem that it is always winter and never Christmas, the bells peal the hope of Christmas all the more loudly.  God has made a way of salvation and life for us.  Despite the threat of ISIS, a bad economy, and the growing anarchy in America that rejects elections results and secretly applauds the killing of police officers, the message of the Gospel announces the defeat of evil and the triumph of good! Though you may face the loneliness and the heartache of loss, the Christmas bells peal their declaration that hope in the redemption of creation is here!

Do not despair. Let the bells of Christmas renew your hope of peace on earth, good will to men.