What is the place of the “Christmas spirit” in 2020? America (and the world) are enduring a terrible wave of death. Its people suffer from a degree of want and fear unmatched since the Great Depression in the modern history of the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation. And we seem to be tearing ourselves apart in a spasm of cultural, political, and religious conflict. These are dark times.
We all have our stories. My family is more blessed than most, but our story includes sick and dying friends, isolation from family, and my first grandchild lying in the NICU in Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, with her grandparents unable to visit her, to see her, or to hold her as our state is swamped with COVID-19.
It’s in moments like this when Christmas carols can feel forced and when that Christmas cheer is far from our hearts. But times of great suffering are also times that can reveal deep truths. And it turns out that there is a Christmas hymn for our time – a hymn that contains deep truth for all times.
It’s a hymn based on a poem called “Christmas Bells” by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote it on Christmas Day in 1863 in a time of great personal suffering against the backdrop of national division and despair.
Longfellow had lost his wife, Fanny, in a dreadful accident in July, 1861. While she was melting a ball of wax to seal an envelope, a breeze through the window caused her dress to ignite. With her clothing on fire, she ran into Henry’s study, and he suffered terrible burns as he tried to put out the flames. She died from her burns the next day.
Two years later, Longfellow’s son Charley – a Union soldier – suffered serious wounds in a skirmish during the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia. Longfellow heard the news on December 1 and rushed to Washington to be with his son as he recovered from his wounds.
It’s against that backdrop, in the midst of a great war that claimed more than 600,000 American lives, that Longfellow wrote his poem. Its opening stanza speaks to the typical hope and cheer of the Christmas season:
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!
The first three stanzas continue in the same vein, but then the darkness of the moment intrudes.
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!
Here is the reality of war and death that staggers the modern American mind, even in a pandemic. The Civil War was so deadly that its modern equivalent (scaled to our present population) would take the lives of more than six million Americans. And so, the promise of peace feels false.
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 is connecting with a profound truth within the Christmas story itself. Amidst the nativity scenes, the stories of the Christmas star, and the glorious appearing of an angel to the shepherds announcing Christ’s birth, we often forget the next parts of Christ’s story grow dark indeed. Mary and Joseph are forced to flee to Egypt as the murderous king Herod killed the male children of Bethlehem.
The birth of Jesus signified the certainty of ultimate victory over sin and death, not the hope of immediate triumph. Indeed, for much of Jesus’s life and ministry sin and death seemed ascendant. One can imagine, at the foot of the cross, his tiny band of remaining followers bowing their own heads and declaring there is no peace, that hate is strong.
But Longfellow knows about the resurrection. He knows how the biblical story truly ends, and his magnificent poem ends with an expression of eternal hope:
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.”
Longfellow’s poem wasn’t set to music until 1872, but the hymn, called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has since become a niche selection in the Christmas canon. Elvis recorded a version. So did Johnny Cash. So did Sarah McLachlan. Most recorded versions of the hymn don’t repeat all the stanzas of the poem. They don’t speak of cannons thundering in the South, but it’s important to remember the source of Longfellow’s (and our nation’s) pain when he wrote those words.
It’s now time for the hymn to take its place, front and center in American consciousness. As we remember Longfellow’s ordeal and Longfellow’s faith, we can reflect on our own.
This is not the season for forced cheer. We should not ignore that death stalks our land. The Christmas spirit of our time has echoes in Longfellow’s, it has echoes in previous Christmases during times of great suffering, and it has echoes in that first Christmas, when death so immediately followed Christ’s birth.
So when we hear the bells of Christmas day, we should not and must not minimize the pain of the moment. “Blessed are those who mourn,” declared Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. The bells herald the promise that Longfellow’s pain, that our pain, will not prevail. God is not dead. He does not sleep. Our eternal hope endures.