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.
The 19th-century carol “Christmas Bells,” Hymn 240 in Singing the Living Tradition, speaks to us across the ages about the longing for peace and justice in a world marked by violence, war, and pain. The words were penned in 1863, during the Civil War, by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Longfellow was a giant in his time, beloved of the reading public. His uplifting and elegant verses spoke confidently to contemporary issues, and his was a life of fame, position, and wealth. After his first wife died following a miscarriage he had a difficult time, but eight years later he married Fanny Appleton, with whom he had five children.
In July 1861, Fanny was using sealing wax to seal packets containing locks of her children’s hair when tragedy struck. A spark landed on the edge of her long, full dress, and she was immediately engulfed in flames. Longfellow tried to put out the flames with his own body and burned himself badly. Fanny died of her injuries the next day, leaving their young children in the care of their heartbroken father.
Two years later, in March 1863, Charley, the eldest child, then 19 years old, ran away to become a private in the Union army, against his father’s wishes. In November, Charley was seriously wounded by a bullet in the back. When his father received the news, he was disconsolate. On Christmas Day, he gave us the familiar lyrics in a poem he called Christmas Bells.
Imagine Longfellow hearing the bells of Christmas while his nation was engulfed in a seemingly endless Civil War, a war which had left his son gravely wounded. Imagine the weight of his son’s injury, after his wife’s horrifying, fatal accident. He longed for peace and comfort, both in his spirit and in his country:
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 imagine Longfellow pulling himself together, affirming his Unitarian belief in the benevolence of God. This is the image that stays with me, whenever I hear the carol sung:
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.”
At this holiday season, may we find peace within. May we work toward peace and justice in our families, communities, and the world. Blessings of the season!
Learn to sing or play the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Share its history with others. This video on YouTube, posted by David Amsler, offers narrated history and a choral rendition of the song, with images from Civil War battles and recent wars in Iraq. Although the tune is different from that in our hymnbook, it is lovely.
Explore the website of Longfellow’s House, which is a National Historic site, or make plans to visit if you visit the Boston area.
With family or friends, share your dreams and ideas about peace and justice on earth, and make a New Year’s resolution to work toward this goal. You will find some ideas for giving back and doing good in the Tapestry of Faith Toolkit book, Creating Justice Together by Susan Lawrence.