Thursday, December 24, 2009

A few thoughts on "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

A few weeks ago I was in church singing this song. Although I am sure a lot of people out there know the story behind it, but I thought it would be appropriate to show the poem the carol is based on and mention a bit of the background to it:

Christmas Bells

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!

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!"

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."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) penned this poem on December 25th, 1864. He had experienced tragedy with his first wife dying after a miscarriage, then his second wife died a few years before this poem was written after her dress caught on fire, finally, his son Charles had some close runs with death during the America Civil War. He had been shot once in the back near his spine, but fortunately not close enough for him to be paralyzed.

Longfellow came up with this poem during the Christmas season with the American Civil War going on. When reading the poem one can see why a bloody war going on while the carols sung during the Christmas season about "peace on earth and good will towards men" makes a mockery of the season.

While the Christmas season can be a happy one it can be quite painful for many. Be it the wars in the world, economic times, sad memories of the past during the holiday season, loneliness, or the realization that todays expensive gifts are tomorrows junk at garage sales to name a few that cause one to question what the season is all about. While I am not sure the "peace on earth and good will" slogan commonly heard is what the passage in Luke 2:14 is really saying, I think Longfellow's rediscovering of the hope and meaning of Christmas at the end of the poem is right on.