Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Bells

Re-posting this from 2012. It still has relevance today:

Christmas comes quietly in the mountains. There are no bells to hear, no rushing traffic or blaring music. Just the birds singing, the wind soft in the evergreens and the gray clouds making dawn come slowly and gently over the land. And yet still the joy and enchantment of the day is in the air--in the crackling of the fire, the twinkle of lights on distant houses, and the sure knowledge the He will come again in the dark of night to bring hope to our troubled world.

In 1863 our country was also troubled, by a war that threatened to tear it apart. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was pulled into the chaos when his son Charles joined the Union Army, against his father's wishes. You can imagine the anxiety of the poet when he heard his son had been shot in the back at the battle of New Hope Church near Orange, Virginia. Longfellow journeyed to his son's bedside in the hospital. He had little hope that his son would survive such a terrible wound, and as he sat there on Christmas, he wrote the following poem.
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;hn
“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)

Charlie did survive his wounds and went on to become a famous world traveler, bringing back such treasures from the East that he sparked an Oriental decorating craze.

We most often hear Longfellow's poem sung as a Christms carol. The words were put to music by the English organist John Baptiste Calkin in 1872. In the 1950's the American composer Johnny Marks (brother-in-law to Robert May who wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and who set the story to music) created a new version of the carol that has become the one most often heard. The two verses that link this poem to the Civil War are not included in carol version. And yet to me those verses speak so powerfully of Longfellow's conflicted feelings during a Christmas season in the midst of such a terrible war. The poem as a read piece is a powerful piece, and my favorite poem for this season with its reminder that hope lives on despite the troubles that beset the individual, the country or the world.

Today as we hear reports of violence and horrific acts, Longfellow's poem is a reminder that good will triumph, that Right is strong and that we should continue to believe that there can indeed be peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And so I send you my wishes for a peaceful, joyful holiday and for a new year year where peace will prevail, good will triumph over evil, and all mankind will hear the message of Longfellow's bells.

Merry Christmas, my friends!

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Diane said...

Merry Christmas!

Mimi Foxmorton said...

Merry, merry, luv!


The Goat Borrower

Lois Sprengnether Keel said...

Longfellow's poem and story are needed as much now as they were 150 years ago. His son, the tragic loss also of two beloved wives, all go into creating a work that shows he understands grief and yet finds hope. Thank you for posting it on your blog and may you continue to share it so you and many others have a hopeful Christmas.


This is hands down the best piece I've read this Christmas season. It reminds us of the enormity of how right can overcome wrong in a huge and mighty way.
I loved learning that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that song, had no idea, and that his son was wounded in the war.
Brings tears to the eye to realize how far we've come and yet how little distance we've traveled. We're still human beings trudging along trying to get our lives right and having to trust in a higher power to do it. God bless and thanks for opening my eyes to this.

Anonymous said...

So much time is spent running here and there, trying to "do" Christmas. But everytime I hear that carol, it makes me stop and remember why we do Christmas. As you said, it also brings back into focus that right will win, even when unspeakable evil seems to have triumphed. I never knew the background of the song, and now I do, it means even more. Thank you for writing this and even though I am a day late...Merry Christmas and may there be a peaceful New Year. Love and hugs. tm

Mac n' Janet said...

Peace, joy and a very Merry Christmas to you and your family, hoping 2018 will be a better year.

Susan Anderson said...

I loved this the first time, and I love it again. I've posted a Christmas Eve story on my blog, if you have time to take a look.

Have a wonderful Christmas!


Brig said...

Wishing you & yours A Blessed Christmas!

Quinn said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this! The jaunty carol is such a far cry from the deeply moving poem that so few ever hear about - and the story behind it. I can imagine you "storytelling" this one!
And of course Longfellow and Whittier and Emerson and Alcott (Louisa, not Bronson, who I can barely talk about without wanting to spit), and Thoreau have all seemed like neighbors to me, my whole life :)
A very happy Christmas to you and yours, Sue, and thank you for sharing your perspective. I don't even mind that you brought tears to my eyes.

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