‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ is a Carol for Our Despairing Times

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The word apocalypse in the Greek means “uncovering,” and 2018 has been a year of uncoverings, of pulling back the curtain to reveal the worst things that people can do to one another. It has uncovered abuse and corruption at every level—spilled blood, separated families, failure of justice after failure of justice, each headline hitting so quickly that it feels impossible to give anything the attention it deserves. There will be more before the end of the year; there will be more before you even finish reading this piece.

It’s hard to rejoice in an atmosphere like this. “The most wonderful time of the year” does not seem wonderful; shopping, twinkle lights, hot chocolate, ice skating and the bright bombardment of advertisements fill the space like cotton candy, too sweet and flimsy.

Like we do every year, my parents took my brother and me to see “A Christmas Carol” on stage to get everyone into the Christmas spirit (which is no small feat at the end of November). The story is familiar and heartwarming, but the song they ended their production with struck me: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Set to music a few decades later, this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written over Christmas of either 1863 or 1864, in the middle of the bloodiest war in American history.

The carol is not cotton candy; it is a beating heart, laid bare in seven stanzas with simple language. At the second-to-last verse, I noticed dimly that I had begun to cry; by the end of the song, my face was wet with tears.

“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!’”

It isn’t quite right to call this a cynic’s carol, but in this verse it is a desperate and bitter one. It’s a carol from a man who has had the nature of the world uncovered before him. It’s one of the only carols that still rings true to me in 2018.

Like all good poets, with “Christmas Bells” Longfellow reached out across almost 155 years of history to take my hand.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the rare poets to have his work not just appreciated but lauded in his lifetime. He was extolled as a great American poet early in his career, beloved and (rarest of all) extremely well paid. At the height of his career, he had everything.

But in July 1861, the unthinkable happened: His wife Fanny’s dress caught fire in their home. Longfellow burned himself trying to put it out, but it was too late; she died the next day. Because of his own injuries, he missed her funeral; he began growing the trademark beard of his later life because of the facial scarring.

As scholar Edward Wagenknecht put it, “the crowning sorrow of Longfellow’s life came upon him just as the Civil War was getting under way.” The war would bleed the country for four long years and leave a chasm between the North and the South for decades after. “One feels from day to day that the gulf yawns wider,” Longfellow wrote in his journal in 1861. “The dissolution of the Union goes slowly on. Behind it all I hear the low murmur of the slaves, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, prophesying Woe, woe!”

After the death of his wife, Longfellow refused to allow his son, Charles, to join the army. But in March 1863, Charles ran away to join the Union army anyway. In November of the same year, he was severely wounded. It was a dark sort of luck — one that many families were not afforded — because it meant that Charles was sent home safe but not sound.

“The death of the young men in the war . . . makes my heart bleed when ever I think of it,” Longfellow wrote to his friend Henry Ingersoll Bowditch in 1866. “How much I have felt for you I cannot tell you, particularly on that cold December night when I came back with my son, and saw you at the station and knew that yours would come back to you no more. Pardon me for touching that wound; it is only that I may tell you how deep the impression is.”

This is the landscape in which Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells.” The original poem, like the song, begins with an image of merrily ringing bells, a marker of the incarnation and a herald of sacred things. The bells remind him of everything that should be made right by the sound of Christmas: peace on earth; goodwill to men; wrongs made right; night crossing over into day, bright and holy.

But Longfellow could not grasp the joy of the season. His heart was heavy. There are two verses in the poem about the Civil War that are omitted from most renditions of the song; in the first, “the cannon thundered in the South,” drowning out the sound of the bells, and in the second “an earthquake rent / the hearth-stones of a continent.”

The penultimate verse—“and in despair I bowed my head”—is a cry to heaven. This sixth verse is the nadir of the poem, the number of incompleteness. It is written from the same place that many of us find ourselves now, at the end of 2018.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Kristen O’Neal