Listening For the Bells

1:27 AM:

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us, and we are 12 days from Christmas Day itself.  So caught up am I in the holiday meaning that I’m unable to sleep.  Knowing full well that I have to work early tomorrow morning, I’m turning to the solace of a computer keyboard.

I had just finished reading a mediocre but interesting book entitled, “There Really is a Santa Claus” by William J. Federer, and one of the final traditional carols discussed is “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” a piece its author composed as an echo of his simultaneous despondence and hope he carries with the occasion.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his wife on July 12th, 1841, a day and 144 years before my birthday.  The nature of her passing was unusual – a small fire engulfed her person, and without proper medical advancement at the time she didn’t last long into the following day, dying just after requesting a cup of coffee.

Longfellow, at this point well past his greatest point of fame, sank into despair.  The fire that took his wife also burned his face, and so he never shaved again, taking his signature beard with him to the very end.  His scars inside never quite healed, however, and he reflected upon this poignantly in “The Cross of Snow:”

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
Time passed.  Longfellow and his children carried on their lives, and his famous poetry earned him visits to heads of state and praise from fellow artists.
As the Civil War came to fruition, Longfellow’s eldest son Charles went against his father’s wishes and fought for the Union army.  An abolitionist himself, Longfellow was familiar with the strife tearing apart his country, marking the times with several famous works that touched on the subject of slavery.
On December 1st, Henry learned via telegram that Charles was severely wounded in a battle that would become known as the Mine Rum Campaign, and ultimately it would end his decorated military career.
By Christmas Day, Charles was on his way toward recovery, and as the morning bells sounded, Longfellow penned one of his most famous works:

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!”

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

Christmas, long by this point an established ancient holiday built upon a foundation of faith, goodwill, and hope, smacked him sourly with each tolling of the bells.  He knew full well that the nation was torn asunder, and the cries calling for peace and goodwill hung hollow in the stale, smoke-tinged December air.

What’s important to glean from this, and what struck me, is that in the end Longfellow hears the bells truly, almost in answer to his despair, beckoning him to renew hope for a better time.

I think we could all stand to absorb a morsel or two of that this year.  Whether you’re crestfallen over the current toxic political climate, mixed up over a loved one, missing somebody special this Christmas, or simply twisting and turning in the winds of another stressful season, know that the bells will toll again for you and for all of us – every one.


Until then, I plan to keep bathing in memories, drinking the cold chill with each foggy breath, and letting the holiday course its way through my fibers at its leisure.  Occasionally one of those nuggets of Christmas Spirit, hot like a smoldering coal, gets lodged in my brainpan just long enough to linger, nourishing me with the sappy-sick sweetness that renews my faith in people, love for my family, and patience for myself.

Stare extra hard at the Christmas lights. Run your bare hands through the snow, should a pile be nearby. Sip some eggnog. Hum a carol. Listen for bells.

Keep Christmas well, everyone.

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