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Our View: ‘Peace on Earth’ is eternal hope of Christmas

December 26, 2018

Songs and carols have been a part of Christmas celebrations for at least a millennium, although most of those we still sing are not nearly that old. Several were written in a burst of carol-writing that followed the universal popularity of the Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843.

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written in 1850, and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” in 1857. “Deck the Halls,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” were all popular in the mid-19th century.

We are told that both Union and Confederate soldiers sang these carols in their camps at Christmas time during the Civil War.

But it is a carol written during the Civil War — and in direct reaction to the conflict — that continues to cast a spell today.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Longfellow’s tormented words reflected personal and national tragedy.

On Aug. 12, 1861, shortly after the war began, Longfellow’s wife, Frances, was severely burned when hot wax dripped on her dress and set it aflame. Longfellow tried to help her douse the flames, and suffered burns on his hands and face. Frances died the next day.

Two years later, in March 1863, Longfellow’s son, Charles, enlisted in the First Massachusetts Artillery. Charles was seriously wounded in battle that November, and Longfellow brought him home to Massachusetts to recover.

So it was, on Christmas Day, as Longfellow, grieving for his wife and country, and anxious over his son’s health, heard the bells ringing in the towers of local churches. He sat down to write and began with these words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

their old familiar carols play

Then in anguish, he continued:

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.

By the end of the poem, though, Longfellow recovered his faith and ultimately reaffirmed the hope for the future that is so much a part of the Christmas season:

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

with peace on earth, good will to men.

The poem was set to music in 1872, and has had a few musical rewrites over the years. The version we now know best became a minor hit for Bing Crosby in 1956, and was recorded by Nat King Cole and other artists. Frank Sinatra delivered a brooding recording of the song in 1964. Numerous recordings by pop and gospel artists have been released since then.

Never considered to be in the front rank of popular carols, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is, however, a powerful song addressing our timeless doubts about the season: Are our words of “peace on earth” at Christmas hollow when hate is allowed to run so rampant the rest of the year?

For Longfellow in 1863, there could be only one answer, as there is for us today: Christmas is about hope; the hope that tomorrow all our troubles will be miles away; that we may, as Dickens wrote, keep Christmas all the year. And that there will finally be peace on earth.

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