St. Xavier Chapel Tucson, AZ

How Longfellow Found Real Hope in Despair in Christmas Music and You Can Too

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Last Christmas I surprised the Redheaded-Wildflower with a turntable and speakers for Christmas. As she opened the speakers, the doubtful look on her face let me know I may have miscalculated. Electronics? Really? As she opened the turntable, she asked a question she knew the answer to, “Did I ask for this?”

“No,” I mumbled. 

I was in trouble until after our Christmas brunch. I set the electronics up and spun one of the records I had also given her, Jonathon Edwards’ Lucky Day. As the first clear notes of Edwards’ guitar sounded, the Redheaded-Wildflower broke into tears of joy. It was one of her favorite records in high school that she hadn’t listened to since the unfortunate introduction of CDs. Those two guitar roused emotions, thoughts, and memories she’d not experienced in decades.

Music has a way of doing that. It speaks to us in ways few other languages can.

Bruce Cockburn set

Music Speaks to a Doubtful the Heart

So it was on Christmas day in 1863 that musical notes woke something dormant in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1861 he had helplessly watched his wife, Fanny,  burn to death. The same year the country was engulfed in the flames of the Civil War. 

Longfellow’s grief and depression was understandably so profound he struggled to write or even function. In response to his children wishing him merry Christmas he wrote in his journal, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” 

Meanwhile his oldest son, Charlie, volunteered to serve in the Union army, over Longfellow’s objections. Then in 1863 Charlie was severely wounded. Longfellow brought his son home on December 8 barely clinging to life.

On Christmas day he must have felt his entire world had collapsed around him. Yet from from a church steeple somewhere in Portland, ME, probably the carillon bells on the St. Lawrence Congregational Church, he   

“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!”

Carillon Bells of Hope

This verse describes not simply Longfellow hearing a melodic bell clapper clanging a disconnected note but a carillon chime playing full Christmas carols. Carillon bells were played by someone like a pianist. St. Lawrence Congregational Church had a nine bell carillon. When the bells played they could be heard for miles. More important they could be heard by head and heart.

Claperless Bell

In the sad silence of his study Longfellow heard musical notes that brought to him words of hope. Could the carillon have been playing John Wesley’s Hark the Herald Angles Sing? “Peace on earth and mercy mild” reads one verse.

No matter which song the notes he heard came from they rebirthed hope in him.

“And [he] 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!”

More than an ornament

The Eternal Promise of Christmas

Longfellow’s heart recognized that for centuries Christians had been singing “this unbroken [redemption] song” of peace on earth and praying and working for life to go “from night to day” because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Longfellow’s heart told him he could sing the song of redemption anew despite his pain. 

This is the connection we too can have in the midst of trouble as large as Longfellow’s own. Christmas 2022, in the first months of being crushed by long COVID, I limped through serving my congregation on Christmas Eve. By my request we sang John Gorka’s musical interpretation of Longfellow’s poem. It’s been my favorite Christmas hymn for decades for many of the reasons I talk of below.

I wasn’t strong enough to stand and sing with the congregation but my body reverberated with the music and the hope it proclaimed. Even in the middle of the despair of a bewildering disease that few understood and many disbelieved. In a heated political war engulfing friends and family. Even in a world seemingly on the edge of global conflict. In all this—even—I (we) can have Christ’s peace.

Musician in Nova Scotia

Music Speaks Hope to the Head 

But then the song of the bells also rang untrue for Longfellow. Or a different sound drowned them out.

“Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”  

Longfellow’s heart leaped with hope at the peal of the bells but their music also awoke the simultaneous truth that

“hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Grinch had hope

Music is the Semicolon Between Belief and Unbelief   

Longfellow experienced what the father in the Gospel of Mark exclaimed over the possible healing of his son: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Again this is what music does so well. It speaks truth to the heart and head. It calls us to live in the tension between the already (God’s declared redemption) and the not yet (the yearning for the kingdom to be full now).

Maybe this is why music has been such an important part of Christmas for centuries. Our hearts bow down before a babe in a manger while we scratch our heads at how this could be. Immanuel, God with us. What a wonderful and comforting truth. God in flesh? What a mysterious and confounding truth. I believe; help my unbelief. Music and poetry are the semicolon between these personal truths. 

Like the Redheaded-Wildflower questioned my gifts in 2022, we too may unwrap Christ’s gift with doubtful looks on our faces. Let the Christmas songs we sing celebrating the birth of one baby over twenty centuries ago foster a new hope and realization there is peace in our hearts and on earth and that we are also praying and hoping for Jesus’ second coming to finish the work.

“Then pealed 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!” 

Further reading for your enjoyment

Transforming Presents Into Presence: A Christmas Psalm

God Come Down: A Christmas Day Reflection

5 thoughts on “How Longfellow Found Real Hope in Despair in Christmas Music and You Can Too”

  1. Jean Sunn

    Thank you Eugene – for soul stirring writing and photos.
    Merry Christmas to you and Dee Dee! ❤️

      1. William Roberson

        Hey Eugene, you might not remember me, Bill Robertson from old Clear Creek County days. I’m back in Minnesota now still part-time pastoring at a little UMC. I played Casting Crowns interpretation of “I heard the Bells” this morning at our worship gathering. Your post was thoughtful and rich. Thanks you. Would be fun to re-connect some time.

  2. Georgie Ann Kettig

    Eugene, thank you,… I tried to leave a comment, but it didn’t seem to go through,… maybe it will show up later,… I’m sorry that I didn’t “copy” it, just to be safe, but this was a very inspiring story,… thank you again & Best Christmas Wishes and Blessings to all,… love, g

    1. You’re welcome, Georgie Ann. I’m sorry it didn’t post. Merry christmas, my dear friend. I pray 2024 is a gift and full of wonder.

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