“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Luke 2:14 (KJV)
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 1861, two years before writing his famous Christmas Bells poem, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s personal peace was shaken when his second wife of eighteen years, to whom he was very devoted, was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1862, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army without his father’s blessing and Henry was informed by a letter that Charles left. Charles was ultimately promoted to Lieutenant but, in November of that year, he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.
Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863. “Christmas Bells” was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine. The refrain “peace on Earth, good-will to men” is a reference to the birth narrative found in the King James Version of Luke 2:14.
This is not only a favorite poem of mine, but I enjoy the many musical settings of it. It also occurs to me how similar conditions are for so many on this Christmas Day. We are not in a formal civil war per se, but there are families separated due to the pandemic. There are families estranged from one another for one reason or another. There are families that will break bread together that may make it feel like a civil war.
I believe the despair Longfellow felt was genuine. And the hope he felt in that same moment was equally genuine. And I also believe that we must allow ourselves and each other the space to feel what it is that we feel on this day. Some greet this Christmas disheartened and some greet it with great hope.
But the promise of Christmas is about the incarnation of God through Jesus. So no matter how you greet Christmas this year, the same God of Henry Longfellow is the same God of 2020.
For those who feel alone this Christmas
Loving God, help us to welcome Jesus into our hearts and into our lives
this day and always. Amen.