Monday, December 30, 2013

A Christmas Carol

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is a Christmas carol based on the poem "Christmas Bells" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The song tells of the narrator's despair, upon hearing Christmas bells, that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men". The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among mankind.

On July 9th, 1861, tragedy struck the home of America’s most popular poet. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, was near an open window sealing locks of her daughter’s hair in a packet, using hot sealing wax. It was thought that a spark from a match or a candle caused her dress to catch fire and engulf her with flames. Her husband, sleeping in the next room, was awakened by her screams. He desperately tried to put out the fire and save his wife. He was severely burned on his face and hands.

Tragically burned, she slipped into a coma the next day and died. His grievous burns would not even allow him to attend her funeral. He seemed to lock the anguish within his soul. Because he continued to work at his craft, only his family knew of his personal suffering. They could see it in his eyes and observe his long periods of silence. His white beard, so identified with him, was one of the results of the tragedy — the burn scars on his face made shaving impossible.

Although already famous and a legend in his own time, he still needed the peace that God gives to His children. On Christmas Day of 1864, just three years following the horrible accident, he sat down to try to capture, if possible, the joys of the season. He began:

“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.”

As he came to the third stanza, he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country. The Civil War was raging full swing. Earlier, the three-day battle at Gettysburg saw 50,000 casualties. Days looked dark, and he probably asked himself the question, “How can I write about “peace on earth, good will to men” in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother and father against son?” But he kept writing – and what did he write?

“And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth’, l said,
‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”‘

It seems as if he could have been writing these words for us today! Wadsworth then turned his thought to God, the only One who can give true and perfect peace, both in the heart and on the earth, and continued writing:

“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.”

Thus we have the marvelous Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. A musician, J. Baptiste Calkin, wrote the musical setting that made the carol a favorite still today.

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