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The Unforgettable Story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

By Dennis Rainey

America is divided on so many fronts—disparity between the rich and poor, civil discontent, racial injustice, political strife and hatred. Mistrust abounds in all segments of society, in 360 degrees. Our great nation is a mess.

In addition to our national unrest, individuals and families have felt the heat from the firestorm of this past year.

I’m reminded that God uses the “ashes” in our lives to bring us and others back to Him. After all, isn’t Christmas all about “Peace on earth?”

Last week, as I was sitting by the fire writing “10 Ways to Celebrate the One Who Made Christmas Famous,” I was reminded of a powerful story about personal tragedy and its unforgettable message.

It was nearly six years ago when, in the words of my dad, I was emotionally bushwhacked by Justin Taylor’s blog post for The Gospel Coalition. I read with great interest and emotion as Justin shared the compelling story of how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem which became the hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s context was also one of national division, the Civil War, as well as personal loss. His wife, Fannie, had died when her dress caught fire. Henry tried to put the fire out by smothering the flame with his own body, but it was too late. Then two years later his 18-year-old son Charley left home and signed up to serve in Lincoln’s Union Army.

On December 1, 1863, Longfellow was having dinner with his family when he received a war telegram stating his son Charley had been severely wounded in battle. Surgeons warned Henry that his son could face lifelong paralysis.

A paragraph from Justin Taylor’s blog post sets the stage for the war taking place in Longfellow’s heart:

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the bells that Christmas day and the singing of "peace on earth" (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.

I pictured Longfellow wrestling with what he saw and felt and picking up a pen to craft a poem which would eventually become a hymn I used to sing as a boy. I had to see the words and hear the song.

In Taylor's post he included a link to a YouTube video of the song. As I absorbed the music and words, I wept.

Today as I was writing this blog post I watched and listened again. I wept … again … as I thought about my Savior and how He came to give all of us broken human beings peace with God and “peace on earth.”

So here’s your 11th way to celebrate the One who made Christmas famous.

1. Read the words of the hymn (below) for yourself and ponder what it must have been like for a widowed single-parent dad of six.

2. Print copies of the words for each person to follow along and read, as you …

3. Explain the context of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s life, then watch the video of the song on a good screen and sound system. If you don’t have a good stereo system, use your laptop. Just don’t let the tears splatter on the keyboard. Watch it again then discuss the words to the hymn: <