On Christmas Day 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat in his chair at his writing table and began a poem. “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!” he wrote. His poem, “Christmas Bells,” would, over time, become a song titled by the poem’s first line.
The poem, which started off celebrating peace on earth, took a sullen turn.
“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!’”
Longfellow had recently received the news that his eldest son, Charles, had been critically wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church during the Civil War. Longfellow had begged Charles not to join the war. Charles was the oldest child from Longfellow’s second marriage to Frances. Longfellow’s first wife had died in child birth along with the child. Frances, his second wife, burned to death when a lit candle fell on her dress at home.
Longfellow, emotionally attached to Charles, could not bear to let him go. But in a letter dated March 14, 1863, Charles wrote his father, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” Now, months later, Longfellow entered Christmas mourning his wives, worried about his son, and concerned the Union was collapsing around him as the Confederates won repeated victories.
Christmas can be overwhelming for many people for different reasons, made more so by the implied demands of others to be happy. The pressure of the season for perfect trees and perfectly wrapped piles of presents obscures the real reason for the season.
This is the day we celebrate the birth of our Savior. He was born in lowly circumstances, fled his home as a refugee while other babies were slaughtered in the search for him. Then he grew in wisdom and favor with the Lord before dying on a cross. But he prevailed.
All roads to salvation, redemption, and peace run through a manger in Bethlehem, not under a Christmas tree or through a toy aisle at a department store. Christmas is a call not to be perfect, but to seek the true and good. Christ Jesus was born in less than perfect circumstances — in a barn reeking of animals — but he is the true and good and only way to redemption.
If the Christmas season overwhelms you, consider how overwhelming it must have been to Mary. If you are suffering, consider the child born to die. Christmas should not burden us, but unburden us. That is the meaning of this season. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his grief, worry, and doubt knew that as he heard the Christmas bells ringing.
On Christmas morning, 1863, he concluded his poem. “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.’” Merry Christmas.