Christmas Day A’22
25 December 2022
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone <+>

Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Amen. – from Luke 2.10-11

It never disappoints to learn more of the stories behind songs. Paul McCartney’s book based on his songs and Bono of U2 have both recently published books telling what’s behind their songs. Reading about the stories surrounding popular Christmas Carols are also very fascinating and inspiring reading. I highly recommend The Penguin Book of Carols By Ian Bradley. There is a compelling story of how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem which became the Christmas hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s context was also one of national division, the Civil War, as well as personal loss. His wife, Fannie, had died when her dress caught fire. Henry tried to put the fire out by smothering the flame with his own body, but it was too late. Then two years later his 18-year-old son Charley left home and signed up to serve in Lincoln’s Union Army.

On December 1, 1863, Longfellow was having dinner with his family when he received a war telegram stating his son Charley had been severely wounded in battle. Surgeons warned Henry that his son could face lifelong paralysis.

A paragraph to capture for the war taking place in Longfellow’s heart:

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the bells that Christmas day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.

I pictured Longfellow wrestling with what he saw and felt and picking up a pen to craft a poem which would eventually become a hymn I used to sing as a boy.

I had to see the words and hear the song. – Dennis Rainey

The words for one of Christmas’s most beautiful carols was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Dec. 25, 1863, in response to the near fatal wound his son, Charles Appleton Wadsworth, received at the Mine Run campaign in Virginia.

Unbeknownst to his father, the younger Longfellow had slipped away from his home in Cambridge, Mass., early in 1863 to join the Union military in Washington. He was a 2nd lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry when injured on Nov. 27. A bullet had entered his left shoulder, traveled across his back, passing near his spine, before it exited under his right shoulder blade.

His father received a telegram on Dec. 1 about Charles’s injuries and immediately set off for Washington, where he awaited his son’s arrival by train on Dec. 5.

The first surgeon Longfellow spoke with said Charles might be paralyzed from the bullet’s damage, but other doctors told him later that the bullet had missed his spine and he would eventually recover. His father later wrote a friend, saying that experience caused him, “a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”

On Dec. 25 of that year, he wrote from his Cambridge home, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” addressing the horrors of the Civil War. However, when it was put to music several years later, the two stanzas that speak to the war were dropped.

I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
rolled along th’unbroken song Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The little-known fourth and fifth stanzas are:

“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 make forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth and good-will to men.”

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play And mild and sweet their songs repeat 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 does He sleep The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men

Then 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