Monday, December 23, 2013

The Story Behind I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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I always thought I knew the story behind this song. That is, until I went to mutual.

A few weeks ago our ward had a combined gift exchange party. You know how white elephants usually go-- a guy opens up coconut perfume, paper towels are disguised with care and chosen by an unsuspecting victim, and somebody is bound to end up with the blinking Christmas tree glasses. [You should have seen them. They were beyond epic.]

But after the presents were opened and the game was over, one of our leaders shared this Christmas message with us. I loved it so much I just had to pass it along.

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As you may be aware, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at the time of the Civil War. Now, obviously the war was anything but peaceful. However, there was more raging in the heart of this dear poet than many people realize.

About six months before Christmas, Longfellow's wife was burned to death. She had just given their child a haircut and wanted to preserve some of the hair as a keepsake. As she was dipping the locks in wax, there was an accident and her dress went up into flames. Longfellow tried in vain the extinguish them with his own body, but it was to no avail. His dear wife passed away, and he was left with horrible burns that made him so sick he could not even attend his spouse's funeral. 

To quote an article written by Tom Stewart:
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 25th 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me." 
How deep was the pain that Longfellow was experiencing! No wonder it was hard for him to find the joy in Christmas!

But it gets worse.

A year later his son died while fighting in the Civil War. Now his wife and one of his children were gone. How could there be peace on earth when his heart was racked with such pain?

As he began to heal from these tragic events, Longfellow penned this poem about one year after his son's death.

"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!

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!"

I know we hear this song a lot, but how often do we really stop and think about the lyrics? I really encourage you to jump on Youtube, grab your iPod, whip out your hymn book, or aquire whatever means you enjoy listening to music by and think about the background of this wonderful song. Think about what it meant to Longfellow and what it means to you.

No matter what happens around us, we can still have peace within our hearts. Because our Savior lives, the message of "peace on earth, good-will to men!" is still ringing strong. Wars will happen and tragedy will inevitably strike each of us at some point. But as we turn to Christ, we will find true and lasting peace.


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