Monday, December 22, 2008

~ History ~

Did you know that “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written about a family tragedy during the Civil War?

Christmas Carol: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

The date was July 10, 1861. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his wife Fanny, and their five children lived in the historic Craigie House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, overlooking the Charles River. The day before, Fanny had recorded in her journal, "We are all sighing for a good sea breeze instead of this stifling land one filled with dust."

Seven-year-old Edith complained of her long hair and Fanny decided to cut off some of her curls and to preserve them in sealing wax. As she melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed on her light summer dress. The sea breeze they longed for suddenly gusted through the open window, billowing her dress into the flame and immediately wrapping her in fire. Henry frantically tried to extinguish the flames with a nearby undersized throw-rug. When that did not work to smother the flames, he threw his arms around his wife and was severely burned on his face, arms, and hands. Fanny died the next morning. And too ill from his burns and his grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.

Earlier in 1861, on April 10, Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired the opening shots of the American Civil War, and Charles, the son of Henry and Fanny Longfellow, enlisted in the Army of the Potomac. Then in 1863 Charles was seriously wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades.

The war, Fanny's death, then Charles' severe injuries. The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote in his journal, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year later he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." And on Christmas Day 1862 he wrote, "A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me."

After Charles was wounded in war, the Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow's journal. But finally on Christmas Day in 1864 he wrote the words of the poem "Christmas Bells" – a poem about the Civil War but also about faith in the midst of tragedy. The fives stanzas of the poem without reference to the war became the text of the familiar carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Listen to the words and think about the theology wrapped in them:

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.

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 peeled 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."

Chances are you know the first stanza of the famous Christmas carol “What Child is This”—but as with many holiday songs, the second verse brings out a whole new meaning to the carol. Give those often-overlooked second, third, and fourth stanzas a read next time you’ve got a hymnal at hand!

What Child Is This?

"This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel . . . that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." —Luke 2:34-35

One of our most beloved Christmas carols was written in 1865 by William Dix, an Englishman who managed a maritime insurance company and loved to write hymns. Sung to the English melody “Greensleeves,” some versions use the latter half of the first verse as a chorus for the other verses:

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard
and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud—
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

But in other versions, each stanza is unique. The second verse, rarely sung today, looks beyond the manger to the cross:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here,
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Simeon said to Mary, “This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

The Child of Christmas came to be our Savior. “Joy, joy for Christ is born, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” — David C. McCasland

The birth of Christ brought God to man; the cross of Christ brings man to God."

So much history! Times/things were so different, yet in some respects a lot alike!


Denise said...

This was interesting, thanks sweetie.

Sheryl said...

thank you for causing me to slow down and really focus on the words! inspiring to see how people come out of their tragedies with such faith in the Lord.

praying that you and your family have a wonderful Christmas,

Pia said...

Wishing you all the best this Christmas and a blessed New Year!

God bless you and your family! ♥

Laurie Ann said...

I had no idea! Thanks for this history and this precious post! I'm praying you have a wonderfully Merry Christmas!

Kim@Seasons of My Heart said...

Wow...this was a great post. I didn't know the history behind these songs and it was so great to sit, be still...and reflect.

Thanks friend.


Tracy said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing those stories. Powerful, heartbreaking & inspiring.

Praying you and your entire family have a wonderful and special time together celebrating the birthday of our Saviour!

Love & blessings,

Debra said...

Cheryl Kay,

Stopping by to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

God bless you!