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  • Pastor Ryan

12 Days of Christmas (Carols) -- "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"



I think the greatest Christmas carols are born of a brutiful concoction of anguish and hope.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” illuminates this belief.


Two years prior to writing this poem and carol, Longfellow’s peace was shaken as his wife died in an accidental fire. Then, at the outset of the Civil War, his oldest son signed up to fight for the Union Army.


Without the approval of Longfellow.


And then his greatest fear nearly came to fruition. His enlisted son, Charles, was nearly mortally wounded at the Battle of Mine Run.


With his son laying in recovery, Longfellow penned this Christmas Carol of poem on Christmas Day in 1863.


The great transcendalist despairs over the losses in his own life and he laments slavery, war, and the hate that infuses the hearts of so many. He wonders, as I have watching the news, if the song of peace on earth and good will to all is just mocked.


The poem begins actually with the poet describing hearing the Christmas Bells from a distant church — right in the middle of the Civil War. He is reminded of the promise of Christmas of peace and goodwill.


But then he begins to reflect on how the enslaved populations are treated. He perhaps even hears the cannons thundering in the South — cannons that seemingly drown out the Christmas carols and bells.


All of this leads to the incredibly evocative stanza:


“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 (all)!”

I am stunned that this lyric stands and has remained in modern hymnals. In the recent eras of toxic positivity and Hallmark/Netflix saccharine movies, this piece of poetry makes no bones about the realness and rawness of hate, despair, and how far we seem to be from peace and the common good.


And yet…


After expressing anguish and bereavement, the poet concludes that a miracle takes place. On this day of Christmas, somehow and someway, the bells pierced the sounds of war and pealed more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to all.”

May you come to hear the Christmas bells piercing and pealing more loudly in these cold nights. May the Christmas bells and carols speak to your heart in times of anguish or loss. When your heart or the country feels on the brink of bitter division, may we all hear the Christmas bells ringing out, “Peace on earth and goodwill to ALL.”

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