Part VI: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My brother Jeremy was the first person I ever heard tell the story behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day”. My former Middle School History teacher and fellow Horse Branch church member Rett Floyd probably tells it best.
And it’s become a yearly tradition at my current church, Bear Point FWB, to honor Longfellow by telling it the Sunday before Christmas. Or as 2022 would have it most appropriately, on Christmas Day. We change it up from year to year to keep it from becoming too familiar but most years it involves my wife leading and a children’s choir singing the refrain behind her, with the congregation doing whatever part they want. An idea I got from a very popular Casting Crowns performance.
I do not want to limit any discussion of Longfellow just to that one poem, now a beloved Christmas hymn. I studied his poetry growing up, notably The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. I am not a poetry person, at all, and even I could tell Longfellow was very talented.
But it would be disingenuous of. me to say that my desire to meet and hug Longfellow in heaven doesn’t stem primarily from his honest, raw, refreshing yet ultimately biblical and hopeful reaction to Christmas of 1863.
Most popular Christmas hymns are either full of joy or somber but still uplifting, and present a picture-perfect image of that first Christmas Night. A handful are willing to broach subjects like pain and mourning. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and Andrew Peterson’s modern “Labor of Love” are two that we adore here at Rambling Ever On and have written about.
What separates Longfellow’s poem from those two is that the former powerfully sets Christmas in its original biblical context. The latter focuses on Mary and the messiness of how she gave birth. Both are wonderful and needed. Yet “I Heard the Bells” feels like someone I know personally next door grieving at Christmas time. It’s relatable because I and countless others have been where Longfellow was.
From the time I was very small, Christmas has been magical. But harsh realities of adulthood have ravaged more than a couple of Decembers in my life. Especially 2023. Most years I start listening to Christmas music on November 1st. This year I just couldn’t do it. Any attempt to encourage myself with “Hark the Herald” or “O Holy Night” was resoundingly defeated by my physical and emotional state.
I won’t even compare my circumstances to Longfellow’s. I have never lost a spouse (He actually lost two) or known war, much less a war so depressing and awful as the American Civil War. Yet, on some level, I have also bowed my head numerous times, even at Christmas, and observed there is no peace on earth. I don’t have to go 10 miles away from my home to see hatred, fighting, evil, and injustice.
Like Longfellow, the first thing that can bring me out of the abyss is knowing that God is working even when I cannot see it or feel it. I know he hates injustice. And I must trust in His, at times, invisible sovereignty. And I will add that even though the song doesn’t broach this, for me and other Christians, church community is vital to overcoming this level of discouragement.
Longfellow, even though he was a brilliant writer, comes across as a regular guy with real feelings and questions. Even doubts. I love that about him. We need more of that, even when we talk about Christ’s birth year by year.
And that. is why I hope to hug him in Heaven.
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