Tragedy Tolls the Bells of Christmas

Christmas 2020 is one that many of us would like to forget. People are either spending Christmas in COVID lockdown or risking exposure to be with those they love. Either way, the specter of more than 326,000 COVID deaths in America looms large over this happiest time of year. On a personal level, I’m reflecting on the deaths of several friends. There are a lot of empty chairs at a lot of tables this year.

Of course, sadness and tragedy remembered at Christmastime aren’t new. Most people have the experience of living through the first Christmas after the death of a loved one. My wife’s grandma told us that Christmas is always hard, even though her partner has been gone for 20 years.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writing from the middle of the American Civil War, wrote the poem Christmas Bells. Two years prior, his wife of 18 years was burned to death. His country was falling apart around him. Then, in March, his son left without permission to join the Union Army. This national tragedy had become personal for him, compounding the aching left in his heart from the loss of his wife. In late November, his son was wounded and near death. Two weeks before Christmas, they returned from Washington DC to Cambridge, Mass., where he was tending to the boy’s wounds.

Longfellow sat down to write on Christmas Day. His poem starts with a Christmas Card-perfect rendition of familiar holiday felicitations. Christmas sunrise, in his telling, is especially sweet.

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!

But in the fourth verse tragedy overtakes tradition, and the bells of Christmas are overwhelmed by the peals of cannon-fire. His bitter pain is palpable, jumping from the page and into the hearts of everyone who knows what it’s like to awaken, only to remember the pain that sleep had interrupted.

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!

For Longfellow the cannons weren’t an abstraction. His broken son lay in the other room as a testament to their reality. No matter the seeming rightness of the cause, the cost of war was real and threatened to steal Longfellow’s faith in goodness and justice. Surely, all light would soon be swallowed up.

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!"

But somewhere between the 6th and the 7th verse, Longfellow went on a journey toward redemption. I don’t know how long he lay down his pen, nor what passed through his mind while he looked out the window into that wintry New England day. But he found, in his faith, the answer to the pain and injustice that he felt.

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 found hope in God’s existence. He realized that, though the purposes of Divine Providence be obscured, they still exist. His writing echoes the words of Job from the Biblical book that bears his name: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25)

There is a redeemer, and the hope you can have this Christmas is the hope that you place in Him. Wherever redemption you’re needing, I pray that this Christmas, you’re able to make part of Longfellow’s journey.