Intersection of Life and Faith

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" Finding Praise through Pain in the Meaning

  • Bethany Pyle Editor, BibleStudyTools.com
  • 2019 23 Dec
  • COMMENTS
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" Finding Praise through Pain in the Meaning

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a lesser-known Christmas song, and not generally the first to be requested around the Christmas tree. The lyrics were born out of painful circumstances, but as with other classic hymns, the story behind the song gives it gravity and drives home the message of hope and the power of God’s marvelous plan.

The Christmas season, at its core, is really about the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. Without this half of the story, there’s really no magic to the baby in the manger. In the same way, listening to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” helps us to understand the gravity of sin – the way it permeates our world. But the conclusion of the song reminds us of Christ’s glorious resurrection, and eventual return, when “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,” and peace will truly rule the earth.

Who Wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of America’s greatest poets. You may know him as the author of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” but he penned many other poems, novels and anthologies, as well as translating popular foreign works into English. The most famous of his translations was Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”

Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807 in Portland, and upon his death was one of the few American poets to be buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, according to the Poetry Foundation. The time in-between these events, as with most poets, was filled with plenty of writing, and quite a bit of tragedy. His first wife, Mary Potter, died suddenly while Longfellow was overseas. After a long and difficult courtship, he married Frances Appleton in 1843 and the couple had six children. “The marriage was an exceptionally happy one for both partners and brought Longfellow the domestic stability he had missed,” writes the Poetry Foundation. However, the bliss was not to last.

In 1861, while sealing envelopes with hot wax, a flame caught Frances’ clothes on fire. “Henry had rushed to her aid and tried to smother the flames. But by the time the fire was out, Frances had been burned beyond recovery,” according to the New England Historical Society. Longfellow fell into a deep depression after this event and threw himself into his work.

Origin and Backdrop of War

Longfellow was a staunch abolitionist, something that was proudly reflected in some of his writing. So, when the Civil War came, his oldest son, Charley, was eager to do his part. As a Second Lieutenant, Charley fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, and narrowly dodged the Battle of Gettysburg by coming down with typhoid fever, writes Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition. He was back in the fight by August 1863, but Charley’s luck was running out.

Taylor writes that “While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded four days earlier. On November 27, 1863 … Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade.” Longfellow’s son survived his injury and was brought home to recover.

Longfellow found himself staring down another Christmas season as a widower, with five children dependent on him and now one child on the brink of death. Outside, he heard the Christmas bells ringing, but I imagine he could also hear the cannons and gunfire of war in his mind. The world was tearing itself apart. There didn’t seem to be much space for peace on earth or goodwill toward men.

In the midst of it all, Longfellow did what he did best – he wrote:

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.”

A Reminder of the Weight of Sin in the World

I’ve resonated with this song and story ever since first hearing it two years ago. While my personal life is, blessedly, not draped with as much tragedy as Longfellow’s, it’s hard sometimes to look out my window and think of peace. I look at the world and think of school shootings, of sarin gas, of abuse and pain and a world shattered by sin. Like Longfellow, I have bowed my head at times and thought, “There is no peace on earth / for hate is strong, and mocks the song / of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Perhaps you are feeling these same emotions this year, either from personal loss or just an overwhelming sense of the pain that is in the world. I don’t want to skip over this part of the story, even for a Christmas article. The world is broken and painful, and soaking in these emotions for just a minute makes the miracle of Christ’s birth all the more sweet. We are in such desperate need of a savior, no more and no less than the world was in Longfellow’s time.

When these feelings threaten to overwhelm us, God is ready to offer His comfort and peace. God spoke peace to David when he despaired. God spoke peace to Mary and Joseph when they were faced with incredible uncertainty. God spoke peace to Longfellow as he wrote this song: “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.”

What Is the Meaning Behind "I Hear the Bells on Christmas Day"?

I think I love this song especially because it is raw and real. It’s a Christmas song that doesn’t cover up the world with holly and tinsel and say everything is just fine. Longfellow acknowledges that the world is broken, but he doesn’t leave it there. There’s more to the story, and that’s what makes the message of Jesus’ birth so joyful.

The Bible reinforces this when talking about the coming Savior. “For every trampling boot of battle and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). This verse is often not included with the much more famous following line: “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

The miracle of Christmas is that God wrapped Himself in flesh and came to dwell among men. Jesus was fully God and fully man, experiencing the physical suffering of sin without giving in to its temptations. He was unjustly executed, and rose from the dead three days later, fulfilling generations of prophecy and Biblical foreshadowing in the Old Testament. He came to offer us a hope and a future – to help us see past this broken and temporary world to a more perfect world with Jesus on the throne. This is not the end, and the Christmas season, beyond the pageantry and decorations and gifts, is a reminder of the peace that is to come under Jesus.

So, this holiday season, I hope you can take a moment to reflect on the state of the world and the brokenness of sin – not to make you sad or to crush your holiday spirit, to the contrary. Sit in that dark space for just a moment, and then turn your heart towards the newborn Jesus. He is the only one that can provide a path out of the darkness, and what a bright night it was when he was born! Only then can we walk out of that dark space rejoicing, with a new and brighter view of what Christmas is all about.

Sources

The Gospel Coalition, The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

The New England Historical Society, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Hope Surfaces from Despair

The Poetry Foundation, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Diego Grandi


Bethany Pyle is the editor for BibleStudyTools.com and the design editor for Crosscards.com. She has a bachelor’s degree in writing from Christopher Newport University, a background in journalism and a passion for telling good stories.




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