Christmas Bells

Being asked to choose a favorite Christmas song always feels to me like a mother having to choose her favorite child.

You can’t and shouldn’t do it.

When pressured, depending on my mood, I usually choose between these three:

The Christmas Song: What is better than a song that describes all the different senses that make up the Christmas season?

O Holy Night: The Christmas story at its best. I get chills at “Fall on your knees”. After the build up of a world searching for a Savior, what is left to do but to drop to the ground in reverence and respect for the one come to save us from this weary world?

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas: Because life can’t be taken too seriously.

However, instead of delving deeper into one of these three songs, I want to highlight a Christmas song many don’t know, one often passed over for songs like “All I Want for Christmas is You”.*

*Please tell me I’m not the only one tired of this song as of…I don’t know…2004?

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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day sums up the feeling I often get about the world we live in. It starts with bleak emotion that reflects on a world living in turmoil and despair.

You can hear my favorite version of the song here.

Though the song itself bears enough weight to remind us that in spite of all the hate in the world, God is still present and still watching over every single circumstance we face, I think the history of the song gives even greater depth to the words.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1863 and in 1872 the words were set to music by an English organist. The personal turmoil that Longfellow experienced in the few years preceding this poem help the reader/listener better understand the emotion behind such a poem/song.

In March of 1863, his 18-year-old son, Charles, joined the Union without Longfellow’s blessing. Charles sent his father a letter as way of notifying him.* On December 1st, Longfellow received word that his son had been severely wounded in battle and might possibly be paralyzed.

*Ouch.

Rewind only a few years earlier to July, 1861. Longfellow’s wife is burned to death while melting sealing wax. Upon finding her set ablaze, Longfellow attempted to save her as burns on his hands and face would later show, but she died the following day.

Factor in the war that continued alongside Longfellow’s heartaches, and it is easy to understand the grief with which he translated the sound of Christmas bells. And though initially it appears to be a poem of anguish, composed of words filled with gloom, somehow he reaches a conclusion of hope:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail.
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Sometimes it feels as though Right will never prevail and in our human impatience we try to force it. But, if in spite of our personal despair we, like Longfellow, can remind ourselves of this simple truth: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!–perhaps we also will find comfort to see us through.

What is your favorite Christmas song? Why?

For further information visit:
Wikipedia: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
The Gospel Coalition: History of I Heard the Bells
Longfellow’s Elder Years

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