Christmas Bells

On Christmas Day of 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was feeling melancholic. The famous poet who had penned his depiction of Paul Revere’s Ride a few years earlier was feeling less than triumphant.

This Christmas, for Longfellow, there was no peace on earth. As an abolitionist he felt the full burden of the civil country was in the midst of civil war which was tearing his country in two. The war had also taken its toll on his family. Longfellow had recently received word that his son had been injured in battle.

Adding to that weight was the memory of his beloved wife who, three years earlier, had died in a tragic fire.

Maybe the weather that Christmas Day reflected Longfellow’s mood. Maybe it was one of those foggy winter days where the sky pressed down to blend seamlessly into the snow-covered Massachusetts ground.

No, this Christmas was neither merry nor bright.

But, as was his practice, Longfellow sat down to write a poem. Maybe this poem would be gray to match the sky, an outpouring of his melancholy.

But that’s when he heard the sound.

Church bells, ringing through the crisp winter air, announcing peace on earth, good-will to all. The sky unexpectedly lifted, and Longfellow’s spirits began to rise. He penned a poem called Christmas Bells (which was set to music years later and became I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day).

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!”

Hearing

When I think of hearing the bells, I think of that kids movie The Polar Express. That’s the one where young boy jumps on Tom Hanks’ magical train to the North Pole to visit Santa. Maybe not a “modern classic”, but I enjoyed it, probably because I saw it in 3D when it first came out :).

In this movie, the boy has a problem: he can’t hear the bells.

Over the course of the journey he finds out that hearing the bells is dependent only on his belief in Santa. Once he believes, his ears open and he finds out that the bells have been ringing the entire time, everywhere. He simply wasn’t able to hear them.

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of our favourite Christmas songs actually have this theme of hearing baked right in.

Said the little lamb to the Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear?

Even this one:

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

Are you listening? Can you hear them?

Part of the Christmas season is about the gift of Jesus, and warmth and light and peace on earth and all that good stuff. But another part is asking, are you paying attention?

The Ringing

Christmas can be a heavy time for all of us. Bills to pay, stresses of family, friends that are hurting, loneliness, difficult memories from years past. It all comes together during this season. And if Longfellow’s poem is any indication, it’s always been this way.

Life, even at Christmas, is not all merry and bright.

But also true, just as in Longfellow’s day, is that the bells are ringing.

Now, chances are your ears are also ringing this time of year. Mine are. We’re inundated with a forced capitalist merriness, full-volume holiday tunes, tables full of bright Christmas treats, and malls packed with shoppers trying to check off all their lists while maintaining sanity. This kind of merriness can be fun, but it doesn’t resonate deeply or satisfy once the sugar-high has worn off.

The kind of bells that I hope to hear every Christmas can’t be mass-produced or planned into the program. They’re not loud. In fact, they seem to be clearest in moments after the party guests have left, or in that breath right after the choir finishes singing.

These bells are merely a whisper, but they’re ringing loud and deep through the crisp winter air.

May you have ears to hear this Christmas. May you, in the dark of winter’s night, in a moment of surprise and grace, hear the hushed and steady pealing of the bells.

Merry Christmas.