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Peace on earth, good will to men

Progressive Cattle Editor Carrie Veselka Published on 30 November 2020

One of my favorite Christmas traditions in my family is singing Christmas carols together on Christmas Eve. We go through the old favorites like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” and typically end with my favorite, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 

The poem this song was based on was written in 1863 by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the story of its origin is a tragic one. Longfellow and his wife and five children lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the Civil War. In July of 1861, his wife was sealing envelopes with hot wax when a flame caught her clothes on fire. She died of her wounds soon after, and Longfellow himself suffered severe burns on his hands and face from trying to extinguish the flames. On Christmas Day in 1862 he wrote in his journal, “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” 

In December 1863, Wadsworth’s eldest son Charles, who had run away to serve in the Union army, was severely wounded and brought home just before Christmas, barely alive. Longfellow, who had struggled with depression and grief since the death of his wife, now with the added burden of caring for a gravely ill son, found hope and peace in listening to the church bells ringing on Christmas morning. Their cheerful message helped him take heart and carry on with hope for a future of peace for both his troubled heart and a nation divided by war, and, inspired, he wrote this poem:

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 hearthstones 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!”

His poem was set to music in 1872, and since then has been recorded in many arrangements by multiple artists, including Burl Ives, Casting Crowns and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

I have loved this song since childhood because the powerful lyrics never fail to touch my heart. This year, more than ever, the words resound in new and distressingly familiar ways. Let’s not sugarcoat things; 2020 has been rough. Beyond the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is the emotional pain and grief many are going through – those who feel isolated and alone, those who have lost their jobs, those who have lost loved ones, either to the coronavirus or other causes – the list goes on. Beyond that, we have just wrapped up a particularly vicious presidential election and experienced widespread social turbulence across the country. This year, more than ever, despair hangs overhead and peace seems to be slipping farther and farther away. 

It seems like this year, more than ever, the world needs a little more kindness, a little more forbearance, and a little more compassion. What if, this Christmas, we make a special effort to spread a little more peace, one effort at a time? Whether it’s taking a few minutes each day to read from the Good Book, helping your neighbor, serving a stranger or just keeping your trap shut at the family Christmas dinner, what can you do to be a source of peace and good will this holiday season?

What better way to celebrate the birth and life of Jesus Christ than to do our best to emulate His love and compassion for others, reminding a weary world that “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep”? 

Just as we are God’s children, we are also His hands and His voice. Let our hands be full of service, and our voices carry the message of peace on earth, good will to men.  end mark

PHOTO: Getty Images.

Carrie Veselka
  • Carrie Veselka

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