December 24, 2015
I wrote this six Christmases ago. It still applies to today. Merry Christmas from my family to yours. Stand firm, Jody.
“My wife Kim bought me a CD for my birthday this year which featured the song “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” I first heard this song as a boy on an Elvis record. I thought it was a good song but never paid much attention to it.
The version on my CD from Casting Crowns was beautifully arranged and I fell immediately in love with the song. But it wasn’t until I attended Christmas Eve service this year and heard the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that I truly appreciated the song.
One of America’s best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), contributed to the wealth of carols sung each Christmas season when he composed the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on December 25, 1864. The poem gave birth to the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, America was still months away from the Confederacy surrendering to the Union on April 9, 1865; and, his poem reflected the prior years of the war’s despair, while ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace.
Longfellow’s despair did not only include the Civil War. As with any writing or song that touches the heart of the hearer, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flowed from the experience of Longfellow– involving the tragic death of his wife Fanny and the crippling injury of his son Charles from war wounds. Henry married Frances Appleton on July 13, 1843, and they settled down in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were blessed with the birth of their first child, Charles, on June 9, 1844, and eventually, the Longfellow household numbered five children.
Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. The Civil War began and Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident. Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby throw rug. Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he 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 his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.
The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25,1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow’s journal.
Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem, “Christmas Bells.” The reelection of Abraham Lincoln or the possible end of the terrible war may have been the occasion for the poem.
Longfellow’s Christmas bells loudly proclaimed, “God is not dead.” Even more, the bells announced, “Nor doth He sleep.” Longfellow wrote: “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” The message that the Living God is a God of Peace is proclaimed in the close of the carol: “Of peace on Earth, good will to men.”
The year 2009 was one of the toughest years of my life. Losing a job, downsizing a house and being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease made me at times want to say there is no peace. But God is so great and faithful.
That is why the words from Longfellow have taken hold of my heart. God is not asleep, He is with me. God will prevail over sin, over disease and over wrong. The Word of God tells us in John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
My prayer for 2010 is that no matter how bad things could get, God is on His throne and watching over us ever step of the way. Ring bells ring.”