Christmas Bells – 3 January 2023

Bells - Christmas Bells
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Christmas Bells

Merry Christmas!  This is the Eleventh Day of Christmas, with still more Christmas to come.  

Today I’d like to take a look at a particularly moving Christmas song. There’s a story behind the creation of every song, and sometimes knowing the story can make the song all the more meaningful.  This is one of my favorites.

The story begins on Christmas Day, 1863, when the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells”.   

Wadsworth starts his poem with church bells ringing out the joy of Christmas:

Longfellow - Christmas Bells
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868

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 Christendom
Had 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!

The Cannon Thundered

The poet, however, was not filled with unmixed good cheer.  His wife had recently died a tragic death in a house fire. On top of that, he had just received news that his son Charles, who had left without his knowledge or consent to fight in the bitter Civil War that was then embroiling the United States, had been wounded in battle.  Despite himself struggling with profound sorrow in the midst of our most festive season, Longfellow juxtaposes the joyful ringing of bells in “The belfries of all Christendom” to the manifest lack of peace among 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!

Longfellow Family - Christmas Bells

. . . And made forlorn / The households born / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Henry, Charles, Ernest, and Frances Longfellow, ca. 1849. (Photo from the National Park Service, Longfellow National Historic Site)

To Free Us from the Power of Sin

These images of war and shattered homes seem to give the lie to the joyful promise of the Christmas Bells:

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!”

Christ came, of course, not simply to bring joy: he came to free us from the power of sin.  Our Faith is grounded in Christian Hope, which is the confidence that the Power of God is greater than the power of hate, and stronger than hate’s master.  Longfellow’s closing stanza resolves the conflict between Christmas joy and the sin and violence of this world with a ringing assertion of Christian Hope:

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.”

Longfellow had very powerful incentives to turn to despair, but instead created a poem that shows us that the joy of Christmas is not a denial of the brokenness of this world, but God’s answer to it.

My friend, the enemy - Christmas Bells
My Friend, The Enemy, by Mort Kunstler

Despair and Redemption

Longfellow’s poem has been put to music numerous times over the past century and a half (usually under the title, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”). I’ve long been familiar with Johnny Cash’s rendition of the song; more recently, I heard a similar arrangement of lyrics set to a very different tune by the Christian group Casting Crowns.  

The various song versions also contain different arrangements of the text of Longfellow’s original poem. Curiously, none of the musical adaptations that I have found have included Longfellow’s 4th and 5th stanzas, with their references to thundering cannon and forlorn households.  The Johnny Cash version also moves stanza 3 (“Till ringing, singing . . .”) behind Longfellow’s concluding stanza (“God is not dead . . .”), and then repeats the “God is not dead” stanza.  The effect is to de-emphasize the concrete reasons for the speaker’s cry of despair, and give greater emphasis to the redemptive conclusion.  

It seems to me that the change robs the song of some of its narrative coherence (why should the speaker “bow his head in despair” after hearing “peace on earth, good will to men”?). Not only that, by replacing those tangible examples of suffering with the abstraction “hate,” they deprive the poem of much of its dramatic power.  I suppose the song-makers thought those images too heavy for a Christmas song, but in fact they are a stark reminder of why the coming of the Messiah is “Good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10).

Christmas Bells: The Triumph of Christian Hope

For all that, the sense of Longfellow’s poem still comes through in the song: the joyful celebration of Christmas seems to be mocked by the all-too-evident evil in the world (and is there any one of us who is not, right now, directly aware of some reason for anger or sorrow?).  The conclusion reminds us that the Child lying in the wooden manger will one day hang upon a wooden cross, precisely so that he might carry us through those evils to the feet of His Father.

When we learn about the real suffering that the author of those words was experiencing as he wrote them, we can experience the song, not as sentimentality or empty platitude, but as a true triumph of Christian Hope.

Let the bells peal loud and deep!

Music for the Christmas Season

The video below features the Dittmer family performing the Johnny Cash version of “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This shorter rendition leaves out the “Ringing, singing” stanza and omits Cash’s repetition of the “God is not dead” stanza.

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