“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” —Luke 2:14
One of the most familiar carols we hear during the holidays is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The story behind the song, based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is very interesting.
In 1860, Longfellow was at the peak of his success as a poet. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected President, giving hope to many in the nation. But things soon turned dark for America and for Longfellow, personally. The Civil War began the following year, and Longfellow’s wife died of severe burns after her dress caught fire. Longfellow sustained severe burns on his hands and face from trying to save his wife. He was so badly burned that he could not even attend her funeral. In his diary for Christmas Day 1861, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.”
In 1862, the Civil War escalated and the death toll from the war began to mount. In his diary for that year, Longfellow wrote of Christmas, “‘A merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” In 1863, Longfellow’s son, who had run away to join the Union Army, was severely wounded and returned home in December. There is no entry in Longfellow’s diary for that Christmas.
For Christmas Day that year, Longfellow wanted to pull out of his despair, so he decided to try to capture the joy of Christmas. 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 Longfellow came to the sixth stanza, he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country. The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past. Days looked dark, and he probably asked himself the question, “How can I write about peace on earth, goodwill 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,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
That could be said of our day as well.
But then, catching an eternal perspective and the real message of Christmas and Christ Himself, he wrote:
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!”