One of my very favorite Christmas songs is “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day.” This song was composed first as a poem on December 25, 1864 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A few years ago, our worship pastor told us the story behind the poem. Since I heard the backstory, this song quickly rose to the top of my Christmas playlist.
1861 was a year of personal and national tragedy for Longfellow and his family. On April 12, 1861 the opening shots of the American Civil War were fired. In July 1861 Henry’s wife, Fanny, was giving her daughter a haircut in the library of their home. After trimming some of her daughter’s hair, Fanny decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. She began to melt the bar of wax with a candle but a few drops fell onto her dress – immediately wrapping her in flames. Fanny tried to protect her daughter by running into Henry’s study in the next room where he tried to extinguish the flames with a rug. Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Fanny - severely burning his face, arms, and hands.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
As a result of her injuries, Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.
In 1863, in the heart of the American Civil War, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charles avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow's journal.
And in despair I bowed my head
Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem, "Christmas Bells." Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the discord in his own heart and the world he observed around him.
He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook.
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
Longfellow’s dark cloud began to lift when he chose to focus on the fact that God is alive, that He is sovereign and His plan is beyond our understanding. We can experience peace in our hearts when we put our faith and trust in Him. I think that’s the kind of peace Longfellow finally experienced.
On that Christmas morning in 1864, Henry recognized the truth that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” Christmas reminds us that God demonstrated His goodness and sovereignty by sending His Son to live on earth and pay the penalty for our sin so that we could experience true peace with God.
I pray that we would claim His peace this Christmas season!
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