Among stirring hymns of “joy to the world” and holly, jolly carols inviting us to “have a cup of cheer,” we often forget that Christmas for many is a somber time. In a year riddled with the ravages of a plague and its attendant social and economic consequences, this holiday season may be tinged with sorrow for many.
But it may be that same darkness that enhances Christmas’ power to deliver peace.
The Christmas of 1863, for acclaimed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ranks high in the annals of grief-filled Christmases. Only two years previous, his wife died in a fiery accident in their home. Now his son was being sent back from the Civil War after a gun wound nearly paralyzed him. The nation was approaching the conclusion of its third year of war, and the poet’s emotional state was no more stable than that of his country.
Now a widower at age 56, he retreated from his faculty post at Harvard. The weight of six children solely on his shoulders, he turned to poetry for solace:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” he wrote, with a hint of defiance at the sorrow that surrounded him.
Nearly a decade passed before the poem, originally titled “Christmas Bells,” was set to music. A 1956 Bing Crosby rendition brought its first brush with fame. The closing words — “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men” — resonated with a nation which, seven years earlier, emerged victorious in World War II, but now faced a decadeslong Cold War. From evangelical pulpits to the White House podium, both conflicts were construed as moral battles: godless communism versus God-fearing democracy. Longfellow’s comforting verse, sung by Crosby’s rich baritone, seemed as allegorical to the previous decade’s despair as it did hopeful for continued American prosperity.
Then came Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams, Harry Belafonte and Casting Crowns. But as the music morphed into the mainstream, so did the lyrics’ meaning; the poem shed its association with war and politics, or even sorrow and grief.
Lyrics longing for context have been orphaned. But in 2020 — a year marred by sickness and death, distrust and disdain — it’s appropriate to reclaim the more consequential meanings of Longfellow’s stanzas. Longfellow wrote in a time of war and disease, of family loss and economic upheaval.
When he penned “Christmas Bells” in 1863, his world was engulfed by the Civil War, and he didn’t try to blot it out. Only in subsequent musical arrangements of his poem were specific references to the war erased. Forgotten are his fourth and fifth stanzas, which speak of “a cannon thunder(ing) in the South … as if an earthquake rent / The hearth-stones of a continent. ...”
Without those additions, Longfellow’s anguished sixth-stanza cry — “There is no peace on earth, I said” — is deprived of its full depth. The poem’s message — that peace can come even in the darkness of conflict — is diminished.
It’s Longfellow’s grief and sorrow — the raw, heart-wrenching horror of war, the stinging loss of his wife, the torrent of political and social contention — that make his poem’s final declaration all the more audacious: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.”
With that backdrop, “Christmas Bells” rings out like a battle hymn for the Christmas of 2020, for a nation deprived of compassion and lusting for respite. It trumpets the day’s triumphant message both loud and deep: Christ is come — the Savior of the world — trailing hope, redemption and healing in his wake, ever bringing peace on earth, goodwill to men.