Historical Christmas

With the closing of my first year writing HistoricallySpeaking, I thought I would end it right with a historic Christmas story.  Being a Civil War historian, one of myfavorite Christmas songs is, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.  That may sound strange, most do not associatethe two together.  However, “I heard theBells on Christmas Day” is a Civil War song. Most versions of the song do not include all of the verses, but if used,you can understand that it is a song about the pain and struggle during thewar.  In fact, it can really be a songabout any war.

In the years before the Civil War, the great poet HenryWadsworth Longfellow would have enjoyed Christmas like most in the Victorianera with his wife and six children enjoying their version of a Dicken’sholiday.  These early memories might haveeven been the inspiration in the song’s first verses:

                I heard the bellson Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

                  And wild andsweet

                  The wordsrepeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

                  Had rolledalong

                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, achime,

                  A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

However, for the Longfellows, like so many others during the war, theirlives would be shattered as the nation tore itself apart and caused the deathsof thousands.  For the Longfellow household,their suffering began when Longfellow’s wife, Fannie, caught her dress on fireand she was killed in 1861.  In trying toput out the flames, Longfellow himself was severely burned.

To make matters worse, right before Christmas in November 1863,Longfellow’s oldest son was wounded in the Battle of Mine Run.  The letters from the doctors told him that hemight be permanently paralyzed. Longfellow rushed down to Washington, D.C. to help nurse his firstbornback to health.  It is easy to understandthe next few lines:

                Then from eachblack, accursed mouth,

The cannon thundered in the South,

                  And with thesound

                  The carolsdrowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

 hearth-stonesof a continent,

                  And madeforlorn

                  The householdsborn

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 isstrong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Yet the Spirit of Christmas was able to overcome such great suffering.  Since the Civil War there have been too manyChristmases with soldiers away from their families, and I am sure many familiestoday have had similar thoughts as Longfellow. I hope this year Christmas can bring you some joy and peace and likeLongfellow, be able to say:

                Then pealed thebells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

                  The Wrong shallfail,

                  The Rightprevail,

 peace on earth,good-will to men!”

This has been an amazing year for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed writingthis column.  I hope it has not onlyentertained you, but made you take a moment to think about some of the currentissues.  From my family to yours, I wantto wish you all a merry Christmas. 

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