The Christmas Carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, set to music in 1872. As is the case with many hymns this one arose out of a crisis, in this case of deep depression and despair. Longfellow lost his wife in a horrific accident in 1861 and was not able to recover. Then, against his wishes, his son joined the Army and went to fight the Civil War in 1862. He was wounded at New Hope, Va. In November of 1863, and Longfellow was forced to travel to Washington to bring his son home and care for him during a long convalescence.

In this somber circumstance Longfellow heard church bells ringing on Christmas Day. I think I know how he felt. When all seems bleak, when my plans have all failed, when the end of the road is in sight, when it is the darkest time in a dark night, a glimmer of light. Day is coming. It’s going to be OK. So the poet writes,

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!”[1]

It’s been a tough year for a lot of people. Things might get worse before they get better. Lay down your burdens for a day.  Listen to the bells.

[1] “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day,” New England Historical Society, accessed December 24, 2020, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/heard-the-bells-christmas-day-hope-surfaces-despair/.