A Christmas Carol: Stave 5, Day 3

“He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clash, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clash, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!”

When I was little, one of the churches in our town actually rang bells at certain times. I don’t really remember when or for what occasions, but I remember hearing the bells—and liking it. When I was in college, I loved being outside around lunch time for the tower’s bells on campus would ring out some tune. I miss that. There is something joyful about bells playing, breaking through the ordinariness of the day, moving us to look up if nothing else. 

Longfellow wrote a poem in 1863 during the Civil War called “Christmas Bells.” It was later turned into a song called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The words, except the last stanza, are below.

  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!

    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!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    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!”

Not very cheery, huh? Longfellow writes in the first three stanzas that this song of “peace on earth, good-will to men” has been going on for ages, unbroken despite the passage of time. But then something happened to change his view (for better I would say). War. The Civil War drowned out the carols. Christmas day had come and yet a pall lay upon the country with little to rejoice about in the north or the south. Sure, Vicksburg had fallen and Gettysburg had been won, but death continued, seemingly unabated in 1863. Truly, 

“It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent.”

The hearth-stone, that place where one gathers with family for comfort and warmth against the cold, is rent by war, and in Longfellow’s personal life, by the recent death of his wife. The next to the last stanza seems all too true for us today as well. Wars, between nations and among families and in our own hearts render “peace on earth” a little shallow. Hate does mock the song, doesn’t it? 

But despite the mood of the country and the despair of his own heart, the bells continued ringing, and they called Longfellow, as they so often do, to look up. And he did and penned the last stanza:

  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.”

The bells ringing out called Longfellow to look ahead. His current situation was not the end. The despair would not win. God is not dead. 

May this Christmas, whether you hear bells or not, remind you to look up and look ahead despite the situation we find ourselves in. 

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