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Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - The Story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the winter of 1860 Cambridge, Massachusetts captures the essence of an American Christmas. Under starry skies and between snow laden pines, proud New England houses push their way through a thick white blanket. Their yellow-orange windows like Christmas candles are reflected in the ice bound Charles River. In the silence of falling snow sleigh bells and laughter crescendo as the Longfellow family, bundled in winter wool is whistled along behind glossy horses and above them a thousand bare branches release a shower of sparkling snow. Five children giggle with delight.  And ringing down cobbled lanes, across fields and through the wooded hills and valleys are the bells. Single steeple bells and bundles of carolyn bells playing those old familiar carols that make Christmas, Christmas. To men and women of good-will everywhere this is the music of hope and peace.

The following year, 1861, America will need that music to counter the drum and bugle of civil war.  Rising from the strife are the plaintiff songs of divided families.  Songs for lively boys who steal off to war and broken young men carried back to their homes and all to often on to early graves.  Still, for the Longfellow family in Cambridge Summer comes as it always has.  For the five children outings to the seashore, long walks under leafy canopies and happy hours in the family home seem to promise that this Summer will not, cannot end.  

Then on Tuesday July 9th a fire in the Longfellow home claims the life of the childrens mother Fanny.  Trying to rescue her, her husband Henry is severely burned on his hands and face.  Three days later Fanny his beloved wife is buried on the 18th anniversary of their wedding day while he is confined to his bed fighting to live.  Fighting to want to live.  For Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as one war ranges without another rages within. 

For the next two years Christmases come and go.  Henry writes how inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.  "A Merry Christmas, say the children, but that is no more for me.  Perhaps someday God will give me peace."  And then Henry learns that his eldest son Charles, who ran away to join the army has been critically wounded in battle.  Henry rushes to Washington to bring his son home and after days of searching he finds him barely alive.  With the outbreak of war, Fanny's terrible death, and now two years later his son desperately clinging to life we should not be surprised that on Christmas day 1863 Henry reaches for his pen and writes, "it was as if an earthquake wrenched the hearthstones of a continent 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.

When reading his words today we ask, when conflict rages and pain, loneliness and grief overwhelm us where is the music of hope and peace?  For Henry, the answer to that question has everything to do with Christmas.  After Fanny's death he had written, "so strong as the sense of her presence upon me that I should hardly be surprised to look up now and see her in the room.  Death is a beginning and not an end."  On that Christmas morning it is clear to Henry that war, injury and even death are not the end.  The rising sun turns the icing river to silver and the windows of the Longfellow home to gold.  Henry's children bundled in winter wool are whisked past snowy fields, through wooded hills and valleys - along the road to home.  They look up blinking and giggling in the falling snow and they hear the sounds that make Christmas, Christmas.  They hear the bells and from his desk Henry hears them too.  Renewed he plunges his pen into fresh ink, joyfully drawing it across a sheet of snow white paper

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.

In those bells the message is clear, on Christmas day a child was born in a stable.  Of that child Henry writes, "though in a manger thou draw breath, thou art greater than life and death."  And so he is.

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."

As the bells ring on Henry dips his pen again and again.  Because Christmas lives on, Fanny lives on, Charles lives on, a nation lives on and we, each one of us, may each live on as well in hope and peace forever.  

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!

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