“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!” –Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There are no bells in my neck of the woods, for I live at the end of a country road and the churches that ring bells in town are too far away for me to enjoy. But no matter! The beautiful words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are rolling through my mind this Christmas, so wild and sweet.
I heard bells this week as I pushed my cart down crowded grocery aisles and in my kitchen late one night when I baked Alton Brown’s amazing “free range” fruitcake while listening to Christmas music streamed through Pandora Radio. But to experience their magic entirely I must step away from shopping and baking. Only in the quiet can I read this poem out loud and savor the words before giving thanks for Longfellow first, the gift of his poetry next.
In college, my love of words overstepped practicality and any thoughts of a specific career. I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in American literature and worked in publishing. But it was at UC Davis, while toiling over short stories, books and poetry produced by American writers, did I come to understand that regularly reading poetry would equip me to celebrate the joys as well as withstand the storms of life.
In his poem “The Children’s Hour,” Longfellow describes the complete joy he experienced as a father when his young children would invade his study at the end of a work day by running in, climbing over him and offering unbridled affection. He describes holding them firmly in his arms, wishing never to let them go so he could forever possess them in the “round-tower” of his heart.
It’s this beautiful image of a father loving his children that pertains not only to family life but to the love our Heavenly Father has for his children — those young and those of us merely young at heart. To read “Christmas Bells,” written during the American Civil War, is a gift to ourselves even today as we work to strengthen our faith in and understanding of God, who remains aware of the smallest details of our lives.
Faith bears the load in a world where basic human behavior seldom changes and God changes not at all. The issues of war and hate, disappointment, ill health, financial worry and death — all that can threaten our sense of balance and optimism — were equally present in the time of Longfellow. Yet, “Christmas Bells” reminds us of two unchangeable facts: God is on duty! He is in charge!
“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!’”
Wherever you are, I wish you peace and joy this Christmas.