Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas bells

My favorite Christmas carol is "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Any tune will do: Calkin's or Mainzer's. Or Casting Crowns. Or John Gorka.

The history behind the hymn is more heartbreaking than the hymn itself. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote it Christmas Day 1864, months before the Civil War ended. Just 4 months after the war began in 1861, his wife was killed in a horrific accident in their home. Her dress caught fire while she was melting sealing wax to hold together her young daughter's hair clippings. Henry tried to put the fire out and succeeded, but only after her injuries were too serious to survive. She died the next day. And his wounds--severely burned arms, hands, and face--were too great for him to even attend her funeral.

In 1863, his oldest son, Charles, was critically wounded in the war. He survived but was crippled for life.

The years of the Civil War weren't good for anyone. More than 600,000 men lost their lives, and more than half of those lives were lost due to disease. In 1864 alone--the year Longfellow wrote "Christmas Bells"--61,000 of the Union Army were killed in 5 battles alone from May to June. Longfellow was from Massachusetts.

The original poem contained 7 stanzas, only 5 of which are included in the hymn. The missing 2 (preceding the final verse) are:

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.

In reading about the history of the song and poem, I wondered how Longfellow could have summoned the faith for the final verse:

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."

But that's what faith is: summoning a belief in something that makes absolutely no sense. And that's what Christmas is about, regardless of whether you believe in Christ or not. Yes, it's about His birth, but it's also about believing in the good in all of us. It's about believing we can get along for a season, that we can celebrate together, that we can find it in us to give to others--give them more than just gifts, give them hope.

And that's what this song does for me. It's bleak and dark and heartbreaking, but it reminds me that even in our most painful moments, it's okay to believe "the wrong shall fail, the right prevail."


Shankar said...

I love this poem, too. I say poem, because it is not sung nearly enough, in my opinion. Thanks for giving us the background to the hymn. I'll probably pinch it and use it next Christmas on my blog!

Maryanne said...

I have always found strength in this song. I tend to focus on how bad things are and need the reminder "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep" and the surge that gives me.

Merry Christmas!

Anna D. said...

Michela and I both like that song. I'm sure she'd be interested in that story. You should research the song "The Dream Isaiah Saw". I believe they have a similar tone. The song is awesome. (In the true meaning of the word.) I have a copy done by the Pittsburgh Bach Choir. I've heard it over and over and it still brings me to tears. (Not an easy thing to do !)