Church Worship

What are We Singing: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

  • Eva Marie Everson Contributing Writer
  • 2008 20 Dec
What are We Singing: <i>I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day</i>

It was a time of peace.

If you were a Roman.

It was a time known as Pax Romana, translated the peace of Rome. But “peace” only meant that the majority of Rome’s military expansion by force was nearly at a standstill. This season of history expanded from 27 BC to 180 AD.

As the last century BC was coming to an end, Judea was ruled by a madman known as Herod the Great who had obtained his title of tetrarch and eventually of basileus (the highest possible title). Herod’s own high position had come at a huge price and he intended to hold on to it, at any cost, even the lives of his sons if it meant they would take it from him.

Most Jews in the era hated Herod. Those who were Orthodox hated him because of his mixed breeding (Idumean and Arabian). The Sadducees hated him because he had terminated the rule of the old royal house, thus reducing their influence within the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees thought little of him because he held no regard for the Law. The common man was nearly broken by his taxation and his cruel methods for obtaining that money. Not withstanding the belief he’d stolen from the tombs of David and Solomon.

No, it was not a time of peace.

Peace Come to Earth

It was about this time some wise men realized that 76 generations had passed since creation. According to prophecy, the 77th would bring Messiah and Messiah would bring deliverance to Israel. Then, according to Matthew’s gospel, there was a star spotted in the eastern sky. Magi came to Jerusalem and asked the very person who wasn’t about to give up his kingdom, if he knew anything about the one who’d been born king of the Jews. Herod said he hadn’t heard such news, but “be sure to find him and get back with me. I’d like to worship him, too.” (My paraphrase)

The Magi’s avoidance of such news telling led to the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem some time later. Herod was nothing if not thorough in his madness.

But a child who would bring peace to earth survived the king’s insanity. Specifically, according to the hosts of angels who announced his arrival to a group of shepherds minding their own business and their sheep outside the city limits of Bethlehem, peace had come to earth and to men on whom God’s favor rests by his birth.

Born in the town of David, the Davidic Messiah (Isaiah 9:6) was the King of kings and the Prince of peace. His name was Y’shua. He is most commonly known by the Greek form of his name, Jesus. His parents were poor Jews who lived under the rule and tyranny of Rome and whose steps into Egypt and then to Nazareth were determined by who ruled in Jerusalem and when.

But years later, as the baby turned carpenter turned rabbi would explain to those who followed him, his peace was not the world’s peace. (John 14:27) His peace came from within.

1800 Years Later; Can There Be Peace?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a name you should know well. His writings included those famous lines, By the shores of Gitche Gumee[1] and Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere[2]. But Longfellow is also responsible for penning the words which led to one of our most beloved and highly recorded Christmas carols.

Longfellow’s life was ripe with sorrow. His first wife died in 1835 following a miscarriage of their first child. Joy came, however, when he met and—seven years later—married a lovely woman who would prove to be the “love of his life,” Frances, called “Fanny.” Together they settled into a home known as the Craigie House, had six children.

On a particularly hot day in 1861, just months after the start of the Civil War, Fanny’s dress caught fire after she’d reportedly sealed locks of her daughter’s hair with candle wax. Longfellow, in an effort to put out the flames, was also burned. Fanny’s injuries proved fatal and Longfellow’s were such that his trademark beard was more to hide the scars than for fashion.

That Christmas, he wrote in his journal, How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.

The following year the still grieving writer penned, ‘A merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.

Shortly before the end of 1863, with America’s Civil War in full rage, he received word that his oldest son Charles had been wounded in battle, crippled by a gunshot to the back. His Christmas Day journal entry that year was silent.

When it seemed that the War Between the States would never come to ceasefire, Longfellow stepped out of his home on Christmas Day 1864 to hear bells ringing in the distance. Moved by both their beauty and his grief, he wrote a seven stanza poem, Christmas Bells, which spoke of God’s promise of peace, come to men on earth, and likewise to him, a man.

One Song, Many Versions

In 1845 Joseph Mainzer rearranged a few of the stanzas, left out the references to the Civil War, and composed music for Longfellow’s poem. In 1872, John B. Calkin gave his tune Waltham to the words. (To hear both tunes, go t ) Then, in the 1950s, over 100 years from when Longfellow had heard the bells on Christmas Day, Johnny Marks—best known for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—set the lyrics to music then popularly recorded by performers such as Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, The Carpenters, and Sarah McLachlan.

In 2008, the lead singer for Casting Crowns, Mark Hall, set the words to a haunting melody, then added the hopeful voices of children to represent the sound of bells pealing in the distance.

What Are We Singing?

It was understandably difficult for the shepherds to grasp that peace had come in the form of a baby boy wrapped in swaddling cloths and born of a poor carpenter and his young wife. What kind of song was this, they may have thought, which spoke of peace and good will?

Longfellow had the same question. How could the Christmas bells ring out peace when the cannons thundered in the South, drowning out their tune?

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!"

When God’s heavenly choir sang out the word “peace,” they were not singing of peace from war’s strife or from maniacal rulers such as Herod or Rome as a whole. They were singing of an inner peace. A manner of living that holds inner tranquility in the midst of outer turmoil.

The Holy Spirit must have whispered this great secret to Longfellow as well because, in the next stanza, he wrote:

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!"

Today, our country is at war, though this time not with itself. Our economic situation is grave, to say the least. Christmas is rapidly approaching and, in spite of the best sales retail stores can offer, little is being bought. Americans, many who are unemployed, filing bankruptcy, and existing on government welfare, have found that going into great debt just to say, “I thought of you” or “I love you” is not necessary. There is something greater than material items or wealth. There is a peace offered by God, in the form of the greatest gift ever given, ever received.

His Son.

Ironically (if there is any irony at all) it was the emergence of Christianity that eventually shook the fabric of Rome and Christ Himself who has shaken then tapestry that is me.

He can do the same for you, if he hasn’t already.

This year, as you are hear this song and the jubilant gong of Christmas bells, remember that no matter the turmoil or strife that is currently weaving threads through your life’s fabric, there is One who has come, and he has brought with him great peace. Not peace as the world would know it; but peace as only he can give.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14: 27 NIV 

Eva Marie Everson is the coauthor of Reflections of God’s Holy Land: A Personal Journey Through Israel (Thomas Nelson/Nelson Bibles). She is an award-winning author and speaker. To book Eva Marie for your next speaking event, contact The Nashville Speakers Bureau.   

[1] The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow

[2] The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Longfellow