It started at my Tuesday rughooking group. I spontaneously asked everyone what their favorite Christmas carol was. The majority picked “Oh Holy Night”. One person picked “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, and one picked “Silent Night”. After considering “The Holly and the Ivy”, and “I Saw Three Ships”, I finally chose “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day”. I just have always loved it. When I got home from rug group, I looked it up and listened to it again. And then I read a little more about the song’s history.
It was Christmas morning, 1863. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was in Cambridge, Mass., and it had been a terrible, depressing period of his life. He was still grieving for his beloved wife, who had died in a household fire. Longfellow was scarred for life trying to save her, and was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral.
The Civil War was tearing apart the country, and this particular Christmas came only six months after the battle at Gettysburg, where 40,000 soldiers were killed. So many boys were far from their families, and very many would never return home. And Longfellow had just found out his own son had been wounded, serving in the Army of the Potomac.
So as he listened to the church bells ring on Christmas morning, this American poet sat down, suffering at the state of his heart, and of the world, struggling to find the hope of the Christmas message. That morning, he wrote Christmas Bells. About ten years later, the English composer John Calkin set Longfellow’s poem to music.
Though I have always loved this carol, it seems particularly meaningful to me this year:
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.
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!”
So my small gift to you today is the message brought in this Christmas song, hope for the future. And I wish for you to hear your own Christmas bells, find a renewed creative spirit, and peace. Here is a link to my favorite version of “I Heard The Bells”, (on YouTube) sung beautifully by Suzy Bogguss. I hope you find a quiet moment to listen to it:
The painting at the top of this post is Winged Figure (The Angel) painted in 1918 by American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer, now in the Freer Gallery of Art.
A Merry Christmas to you!