Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I'll admit, when I was a kid, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's carol of hearing bells on Christmas day was not a favorite. It seemed like a weird song that the church song leader tried to get everyone to sing with a little marchy, happy glimmer. It just didn't make sense to me, so thus, I didn't like it. It went off my Christmas song list.

Then I married a music pastor.

Suddenly, lyrics to old, familiar songs were matched with the beautiful, and often heart-wrenching stories of their history. I remember the first Sunday Cody had planned to do "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", I was a little disappointed. It was going to be a new slow, reflective arrangement which made it seem somewhat better(thanks, Jars of Clay!).

Then I listened as he read the story of the carol's history to our church. There was no stopping the tears from stinging my eyes...I couldn't imagine for the life of me putting myself in Longfellow's place and penning such beautiful lyrics.

It's now become my most favorite Christmas carol!

I took this story from the blog on the Willow Creek website. It's amazing!

Tragedy struck the home of America’s most popular poet. On July 9, 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longellow’s wife, Fanny, was near an open window sealing the locks of her daughter’s hair in a packet, using hot sealing wax. It was never known whether a spark from a match or the sealing wax was the cause, but suddenly her dress caught fire and engulfed her with flames. Her husband, sleeping in the next room, was awakened by her screams. He desperately tried to put out the fire and save his wife. He was severely burned on his face and hands.
She, tragically burned, slipped into a coma the next day and died. His grievous burns would not even allow him to attend her funeral. He seemed to lock the anguish within his soul. Because he continued to work at his craft, only his family knew of his personal suffering. They could see it in his eyes and observe his long periods of silence. His white beard, so identified with him, was one of the results of his tragedy- the burn scars on his face made shaving almost impossible.
Although a legend in his own time, he still needed the peace that God gives to His children. On Christmas Day, three years following the horrible accident- at age 57-he sat down to capture, if possible, the joys of the season. He began:

“I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carol play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

As he came to the third stanza he was stopped by the condition of his beloved country. The Civil was in full swing. The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past. Days looked dark, and he probably asked himself the question. “How can I write about ‘peace on earth, good will to men’ in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother and father against son? But he kept on writing – and what did he write?

“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 seems as if he could have been writing these words for us today! Wadwsorth then turned his thought to God, the only One who can give true and perfect peace, and continued writing:

“Then pealed the bells more loud deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep:
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I hope you'll be able to sing this carol with new meaning this Christmas!


Christine Poole said...

powerful stuff...thanks for sharing

peter marie said...

It does make it a lot more powerful to know the story behind the song.

Oh, and I have to admit...even though it's a bit of a slow version, Johnny Cash's is my favorite. We listen to it a lot!

une autre mère said...

Oh, you made me cry. I'll always sing that song in a different light now. Love it. But am I weird that I've always loved that song? Maybe because I like the sound of bells...?

Amy@My Front Porch said...

I love hearing the stories behind the songs. Thanks for sharing that! Have you heard Casting Crown's version of this from their Christmas CD? It's been a favorite of mine this season.

Unknown said...

I still remember the first time Cody read the origin to this song at church. It moved me then and it moves me still. I love the honesty of his 3rd verse (I think? - the "and in despair....there is no peace on earth!" verse) and the contrast to the follow verse of victory.

Mandi said...

Great post, Londa!
This is one of my favorite songs...funny how we are opposite on that. Karen Carpenter did it much justice... anyway, thank you for posting truth and reminding me of my love for Hymns! I think I need to break out my hymn devotional book again and refresh. :)

Amanda said...

I have never heard this before... very cool!!