Monday, December 24, 2007

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. . .

Christmas Eve
By Thomas Nast
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On Christmas Day, 1864, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow woke early to the church bells ringing throughout his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts. For the poet, there was seemingly little to celebrate. It was his third Christmas as a widower--his beloved wife, Fanny, died tragically in July 1861 from burns she received after accidentally dropping a lit match on her summer dress. America was still at war with itself, and Longfellow's son, Charles, who ran away from home to enlist in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, was still recovering from a severe wound he received in November 1863 near New Hope Church, Virginia. And Longfellow was still grieving the loss of his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died unexpectedly earlier in the year at the age of fifty-nine. Still, the heartbroken pacifist was able to find some hope in the ringing of the church bells on that Christmas morning. Sitting at his desk, Longfellow penned "Christmas Bells." While expressive of his despair, the poem also reflected his faith in a return of peace--both within himself and in the divided nation. In 1872, John Calkin removed the stanzas that mentioned the war and turned Longfellow's "Christmas Bells" into a carol familiar to us today as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
With the United States once again in the midst of war, Longfellow's poem is as relevant today as it was when first written in 1864:
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Christmas Bells
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 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!"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Wishing you all the best for a very merry Holiday season, and for a safe, happy, and healthy New Year. . .

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