Christmas Bells of Hope

**** Special thanks to my friend and coworker Carl Bergman who shared with me the facts, thoughts, and ideas that facilitated this post. ****


Christmas is the season of joy, togetherness, and warmth…..or is it?  Most of us can’t imagine it as anything else, but to some the Christmas season seems to swirl with despair and loneliness. This is especially true for those being held in the icy grip of grief. One such person was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the author of the well known carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. The song is based off of a poem which he wrote in 1863. The words of the song and the more lengthy poem convey Longfellow’s mixed feelings as he listened to the peeling of the church bells on Christmas Day. Longfellow knew better than most what it was like to have the dark companionship of personal sorrow. In his poem he wrote,

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 goodwill to men.

Longfellow’s words convey the desperate battle of faith that was going on in his mind. To say that he knew tragedy and loss would be an understatement. When he wrote the poem in 1863, the United States was in the midst of the Civil War which proved not only to be a very bloody conflict, but pitted the country against itself. Longfellow had not escaped the wars deadly reach. His oldest son had returned home from the war with crippling injuries. Even more than all of this, Longfellow had been witness to the tragic death of his wife only two years earlier. As his wife Fanny used a candle, the wax dripped onto her dress and it burst into flames. In an attempt to protect their children she ran to Henry’s study. He made frantic attempts to extinguish the flames, including throwing his arms around her in a desperate attempt to smother the fire. He was badly burned in the process. Fanny would die the next morning and Henry severely burned and devastated with grief would not even be able to attend the funeral.

It is no wonder that Christmas time with its message of peace and goodwill disturbed him. The year before writing the poem his journal entry for December 25th said, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” One can almost see him reading the Christmas story and coming to Luke 2:14 where the angels declare the savior’s birth to the shepherds. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.” As he came to those words he must have cringed in anguish and his soul likely declared, “That is not true!” Longfellow faced the question that many bereaved people face. It is the simple question of “Why?”.

Thankfully his poem did not end there. His sorrow did not consume him and the crisis of his faith did not overcome him. The Christmas story and the coming of the Christ child which had caused him such despair would end up offering to him great hope. The final segment of his poem reads like this:

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.’

The ringing of those church bells had changed. Instead of the ring of defeat, they now echoed with the sound of victory. They offered to him a gift of hope. Christmas is all about hope. It is about a world that was hopeless and lost in darkness. Man was unable to save himself and in desperate need of a Savior. On Christmas we remember the coming of that Savior. Only the coming of the Savior could offer to the world true peace and be the ultimate gesture of good will. The message rings clear today as it did in Bethlehem and as it did in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s day. There is hope for the hopeless, comfort for the sorrowing, and redemption for the lost.


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!

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!

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!”

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.”


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