Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Can You Hear the Christmas Bells?

Five days ago I posted a blog article about Charles Dickens’s famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” This article is about a powerful Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote twenty years later, in 1863.
Longfellow (1807~82) was unquestionably one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century. When I was in elementary school, I read some of his poems—which I assume is true for many of you. I am thinking particularly of “The Village Blacksmith” (1842) and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860).
Although I probably didn’t first read it until later, one of my favorite Longfellow poems is “A Psalm of Life” (1839). If you haven’t read that powerful poem recently, I encourage you to take a couple of minutes to click here and read it.
For those of you who like good novels, I highly recommend Jennifer Chiaverini’s delightful Christmas Bells (2015), which in alternating chapters toggles between the historical story of Longfellow in the 1860s and a contemporary fictional story set in Boston and featuring a children’s choir practicing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 
As you perhaps know, in the summer of 1861 Longfellow's beloved wife Fanny died of burns after her dress caught on fire. Then at the end of November 1863, his oldest son, Charley, was seriously wounded as a Union soldier. Still grieving greatly over Fanny’s untimely death, Longfellow was greatly shaken by news of his beloved son’s life-threatening injury.
According to the novel, just before Christmas 1863 as he worried about Charley’s survival, Longfellow felt Fanny's inspirational presence and penned the words to "Christmas Bells."
Before my final comments, I am sharing the full text of that impressive poem. I certainly hope you will read these words, slowly and thoughtfully. Or if you would prefer to listen to them sung, here is the link to Karen Carpenter singing some of the verses.
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 ChristendomHad 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.”
On Christmas Day in 1960, my sermon was titled “Was the Song Wrong?” (That was also the title of my first Christmas blog article, posted in Dec. 2009.)
The time of peace on earth, as sung by the angels and recorded in Luke 2:14, has certainly not come as yet, but those words remain as our hope for the future and our challenge for the present.
May each of us do what we can in the year ahead to bring peace on earth!

Merry Christmas!


  1. The first comments received about this article was from Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton, writing from England where it was already mid-afternoon on Christmas day. The beginning of Andrew's longer email says,

    "Longfellow’s carol is wonderful. I had not realized it was penned during the American Civil War and that a verse speaks to that war."

  2. Thanks, Andrew.

    Yes, I had long liked Longfellow's poem, but when I first learned that he wrote it in 1863 just after his beloved son had been seriously injured in the Civil War it became much more meaningful.

  3. I also received a rather lengthy email from Thinking Friend Judy Trullinger who lives on the road from the farm where I grew up and Grant City, Mo., my home town. Among other things, she included the following link to Sandi Patty singing "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" with the tune that she likes best--and I also like that tune better than the Carpenters tune I linked to in the article. Here is the link:

  4. Comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "I’ve loved that poem/song, too, Leroy. It encompasses my mixed feelings, despairing yet hopeful, through almost every phase of my life."

  5. Would that we could have our utopias. But it wasn't in the time of Christ, nor now, nor throughout history, with the exception of a few specks here and there. Yet we can dream of the day of final judgement and the consummation of history when all will be set right. In the mean time, people of goodwill will do the best they can from day to day, and trouble makers will continue to do their thing - that which seems right in their eyes.

  6. I tried listening to both the Carpenters and Sandi Patty, but both missed something. At least Patti sang the "right" tune! So I started a search for a "correct" recording. Johnny Cash came close, but had a strange metronome sound in the background. Perhaps it is my mother's fault. When I was young she sang in a choir that gave a midnight concert on Christmas Eve at a local church. I remember sitting in the balcony, listening to all the magic, as they approached "Christmas is Here" at midnight. I am sure they must have sung "Christmas Bells" somewhere in the concert. Who can compete with that?

    Anyway, I did find two interesting versions. The first is for history buffs, weaving the Civil War narrative into the background of the song. See this link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZtNlZmnEMU

    The second has a wonderful sound and a beautiful bit of blasphemy in it, "God is not dead, nor does SHE sleep." See this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4Gmm5Iw7tc