When Christmas bells ring

Long ago an American found comfort and inspiration listening to them. They can still chime in hearts today.

Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
A girl raises her arms as she enjoys Christmas lights and sounds at a show in Makati City, part of metro Manila in the Philippines, Dec. 22.

He had a lot to weigh him down. His wife had died in a tragic fire just three years earlier. The Civil War had been raging for more than two years with no end in sight. Against his wishes, his oldest son, Charles, just 17 years of age, had left their Cambridge, Mass., home in March to enlist in the Union army. In November, Charles had been severely wounded in a battle. Now the boy was back living with his father, attempting to recover.

Christmas 1863 wasn’t a happy time for American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

Yet when Longfellow put pen to paper that December what came forth was “Christmas Bells,” a poem later set to music that was to become one of the most deeply inspiring American Christmas carols.

In it Longfellow hears church bells that ring out “peace on earth, good-will to men!” But he finds himself doubting that could possibly be true. 

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 as bells began to peal “more loud and deep,” his thought shifted, and his mood lifted: 

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men!

Much of today’s news isn’t pretty either: In the United States, the federal government is partially shut down and the stock market wobbles ominously. Elsewhere a surprise tsunami has created a major disaster in Indonesia; warfare drags on in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; and political uncertainties and tensions span the globe.

Long before Christmas became a Christian holy day celebrating the birth of Jesus, the ancient Roman winter solstice of Saturnalia had been celebrated in late December. The burning of bright lights pushed back the darkness of the long nights; decorations of wreaths and other greenery were a reminder that the rebirth of spring would come again. 

In the 21st century displaying bright and colorful lights and decorating evergreen trees are still part of the season, along with other ancient customs such as holding festive parties and giving gifts. 

Gathering with family and friends is still a welcome winter respite. 

But for those seeking deeper meaning there’s much more to Christmas, even for those who don’t think of themselves as Christian. A profound, heart-stirring message lies in the story of the lowly child, whose birth symbolizes innocence, purity, and fond hope for a better future. Some have seen a poignant connection between the circumstances of the infant Jesus and his parents, who had to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape his death at the hands of King Herod, to the plight of young refugee and migrant families around the world today.

Longfellow didn’t find peace breaking out immediately after he heard the Christmas bells ringing. But peace did come, in the spring of 1865. Meanwhile, young Charles Appleton Longfellow, who never rejoined the army, recovered his health and spent the next several decades traveling the world.

Today it may take some careful listening to hear the bells’ message that right will prevail. But people of goodwill anywhere can carry it in their hearts.

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