I love Christmas- the entire Christmas season! I spend each day (at least some point in the day) getting in the holiday spirit, and I love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. Sometimes, though, things happen in life that make it difficult to get in the holiday spirit. Maybe we’ve gone through a divorce, a friend or family member has died, we lost our job, or we’re struggling with an illness. We lose things, wars hit, and life seems void of joy. I found this message that really stuck out to me, about the song I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day. If you don’t want to read the story, make sure to scroll to the bottom of the post to listen to the song. Here’s part of the story behind the song. It’s a really moving story, so while I know it’s long, it’s well worth the time it takes to read it!
Longfellow had been married to his wife, Fanny, for 18 years. She had helped him piece his life back together after the sudden and tragic death of Longfellow’s first wife after only a year of marriage. Together, Henry and Fanny were blessed with five children, two boys and three girls.
Fanny had trimmed the beautiful curls of seven-year old Edith’s hair and decided to save the clippings as moms do. When lighting a match to melt some sealing wax for the envelope she was using to save the curls, a few embers fell unnoticed onto Fanny’s dress. It happened that a summer breeze was blowing through a window, which enflamed the embers and ignited her clothing. In a split second, she was entirely engulfed in flames. To protect the children, she ran out of their room to Henry’s study for help. All that was available to him was a smallish rug. When that failed to put out the flames, he wrapped Fanny in his arms in an attempt to extinguish the flames with his body. But it was not enough. Fanny died from her injuries the next day. Henry himself was so badly injured in the attempt to save her that he was unable to attend her funeral and his face was so disfigured and scarred that he was unable to even shave for the rest of his life.
Being plunged into the dark night of a war that he hated and a death that emptied his heart shook Longfellow’s faith to its foundations. Because he was a prolific writer, much of that struggle was recorded in his journals. The first Christmas after the start of the war and Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” His entry for Christmas Day 1862 records, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” Then to add to his anguish, in 1863, his oldest son with Fanny, Charles, was severally wounded in battle and sent home to recover forcing Henry to tend to his injuries. Watching his son suffer turned Longfellow’s prayerful questions into shouts of rage at God for failing to stop the war…save his wife…spare his son injury. His life and his faith had never been more in tatters.
When it came time to pen his journal entry for Christmas Day 1863 the ringing of church bells outside of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts inspired him to give voice to his struggle with God. That journal entry became the lyrics for our Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He began writing of his convictions. Of how God’s Son was sent and Christmas celebrates the advent of peace on earth; of how, like the ringing bells, the Church had heralded this truth throughout the millennia. He KNEW this to be true.
But he then began to write of how his life was disconnected from that truth. There was no peace; none for him and none for his country. As wars raged externally and internally in his life, all he could do was bow his head in despair because “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.” He hit bottom. He had no hope. The hurricane winds of conflict had blown out the flickering candle of his hope for peace.
But then God used the continued chiming of the church bells to perform a miracle in his heart. He noticed in the midst of despair, that the bells continued to ring. Pealing loud and deep, they speak to Longfellow reminding him that “God is not dead nor doth he sleep.” In the persistent ringing of the Christmas bells he finds the bottom of his restless ocean of pain, and springs out of the abyss of despair once more into the light of faith. In spite of the robbery of personal peace represented by the loss of his wife and the injury of his son, and the robbery of global peace manifested by the war that raged around him, the bells that continued to ring proclaimed to him that the Christ who brought peace on earth will one day finish the job; “Wrong will fail. Right will prevail.” Because of Christ, there will one day come a time where there is truly peace on earth, good will to men. (from Blue Valley Baptist Church sermon on Christmas Eve, 2009
by Derrick Lynch)*
Wow. That’s a pretty powerful story behind a song, isn’t it? Longfellow’s life was full of pain and despair, yet in those moments he was still able to find peace. I wanted to share this story because it touched my heart, and because I love the song! Enjoy-
Now it’s your turn to share! What’s your favorite Christmas song? How do you try to find peace amidst pain?
*I am in no way affiliated with Blue Valley Baptist Church. I simply thought part of the message was interesting and chose to share it here.