The bells of Christmas

Christmas Bells

A poem by Henry Wadsworh Longfellow, 1863

I heard the bells on Christmas Dayth-10

Their old, familiar carols play, 

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men!


Then from each black, accursed mouthth-9

The cannon thundered in the South, 

And with the sound the carols drowned

Of peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men.”

(Note: The bolded stanzas are the ones most often used as hymn lyrics.)

Henry Wadsworh Longfellow, one of America’s most revered poets, wrote the lyrics to this hymn in 1863. He was deeply saddened by the Civil War. Though it has been applied since to other wars, most notably both World Wars of the 20th century, it was the noise of the cannons of the Civil War — a war in which his son was injured — that drowned out the bells of Christmas in Longfellow’s world in 1863. “I have only one desire,” he said at that time, “and that is for harmony, and a frank and honest understanding between North and South.” 

The English organist John Calkin first put the poem to music in 1872 and though it refers to the popular carols sung then, it has now become a Christmas carol in its own right. As a carol, however, it has dropped a few verses — verses that I think are essential to the understanding of the lyrics. Most hymn versions jump from stanza 2 to stanza 6, eliminating the cause of the despair mentioned in the 6th stanza. 

We know from history that the despair was caused by the devastating destruction and loss of life in the American Civil War. It was the Civil War cannons he referred to in stanza 4 and in what I believe to be the most poignant line in the poem, he powerfully captured the damage done by that conflict to the soul of the nation: “It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent” — the hearth, with its light and warmth as the central gathering place, especially at Christmastime, being, of course, the heart of every home. 

It seems to me that the hymn has removed the most important part of this poem. Despair does not just spring forth out of nowhere. It has causes — whether loss of loved one, financial struggle, job loss, disease, divorce, or maybe just a personal collapse at trying to fulfill the exaggerated expectations of the season — we all have plenty of reasons to despair in this season; probably more than any other. Bells cut through the despair; they ring out regardless. Like a European cathedral half destroyed in a WWII bombing raid in which the bell still rings out from its belfry: there is hope; we are still here; we are still standing. The bells of Christmas remind us of the hope Christ brought to earth — hope of forgiveness, of peace, of salvation, and hope for a future, and a better end to the story we are living. 

Earlier this week, Marti and I were on our way to visit our brand-new grandson, Jackson. We had had a full day and were in conflict over things that had occurred that day and over being late. On top of that, Marti was feeling under the weather. I stopped to pick up something to help settle her stomach when suddenly the sound of bells was cutting through the little dark cloud of depression I had around my head. It wasn’t the big church bells in a steeple or the bells coming from the Christmas music playing in front of the store, it was the sleigh bells the Salvation Army Santa was ringing next to their donation kettle at the supermarket entrance. I immediately thought he was a little early, but then I smiled just to let the sound of those jingle bells ring into my heart and remind me about Christmas coming and the Lord breaking in on our fragile lives here on earth. Instinctively, I went over, pulled out whatever I had in my pocket and wished Salvation Army Santa a Merry Christmas as I dropped it in the kettle. He smiled and thanked me, and went back to ringing his jingle bells.

Be aware of bells this season. It’s not the bells themselves, but what they represent. Bells are pure, they are clear, they resonate sometimes for long periods of time after being struck; they have a piercing quality about them and that is why they can cut through the darkness, the gloom and despair just like the angels did that night in Bethlehem. Mostly, they bring hope.

We want to invite you to tell your story of a time when the bells of Christmas broke through for you. We’d love to hear you tell it, and if you’re willing, to see you, too. It’s easy to do. Simply turn on your video camera on your phone, turn it towards you and talk away! Or if you prefer not to show your face, use the memo app on your smart phone. Either one of these are easy to send via email and you can simply reply to this email and it will come to me. Let’s encourage each other with these stories. And if you’d rather not talk, just send me a written version of your story and I will read it for you. We want to put these stories on our new radio station and write them up for our Catch mailing. I bet most of you have a story where the Lord broke through and used bells to do it!

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2 Responses to The bells of Christmas

  1. Jimmy says:

    “Thanks to the cross-modulation and ring modulation, minilogue produces very nice bell sound but not suitable for play melody ;)” Bells :KORG minilogue / Volca beats

    Do you remember the last typhoon signal no. 10 in Hong Kong early this year. We used to have a tiny beach house and jimmy, Matt and Gun spent our nights playing video games, and synthesisers for a few years?

    It was destroyed by the big wave during typhoon “Hato”, in Chinese it’s called “Pigeon”. And this pigeon washed away everything in the beach house, including all synthesisers, keyboards, speakers etc; a total lost. We cannot find even a piece of these musical instruments while cleaning up the place and surrounding.

    The elder brother decided we will not buy and collect these anymore. So, next time we want to have bells from Korg, Casio, Yamaha it’s impossible.

    And now we do contemplation instead and use a gong to start the prayer/meditation and wake me up after 25 min of contemplation every morning. We prepare for joy, balance life, others success…. I hope I could bring this spiritual exercise to others and clear our minds together for a pure intention just like a baby that Jesus Christ love most.

    In HIM

  2. Sandie says:

    I sent you an email regarding this (as I am still a Neanderthal when it comes to social media). For me it’s Christmas lights. I felt their magic as a child and it still affects me the same today. Some scientific study I heard in passing, found that the sight of these type of lights releases endorphins in the viewer, regardless of their religious beliefs. Maybe the part of us created ‘in his image’ is responding to the Light, which is Jesus? So,I pray my Christmas light display sparks a sense of peace and hope, and the desire to seek the Giver of these.

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