The date was July 10, 1861. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his wife Fanny, and their five children lived in the historic Craigie House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, overlooking the Charles River. The day before, Fanny had recorded in her journal, "We are all sighing for a good sea breeze instead of this stifling land one filled with dust."
Seven-year-old Edith complained of her long hair and Fanny decided to cut off some of her curls and to preserve them in sealing wax. As she melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed on her light summer dress. The sea breeze they longed for suddenly gusted through the open window, billowing her dress into the flame and immediately wrapping her in fire. Henry frantically tried to extinguish the flames with a nearby undersized throw-rug. When that did not work to smother the flames, he threw his arms around his wife and was severely burned on his face, arms, and hands. Fanny died the next morning. And too ill from his burns and his grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.
Earlier in 1861, on April 10, Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired the opening shots of the American Civil War, and Charles, the son of Henry and Fanny Longfellow, enlisted in the Army of the Potomac. Then in 1863 Charles was seriously wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades.
The war, Fanny's death, then Charles' severe injuries. The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote in his journal, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year later he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." And on Christmas Day 1862 he wrote, "A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me."
After Charles was wounded in war, the Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow's journal. But finally on Christmas Day in 1864 he wrote the words of the poem "Christmas Bells" – a poem about the Civil War but also about faith in the midst of tragedy. The fives stanzas of the poem without reference to the war became the text of the familiar carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Listen to the words and think about the theology wrapped in them:
I heard the bells on Christmas DayTheir old familiar carols play,And wild and sweet the words repeatOf peace on earth, good will to men.
And thought how, as the day had come,The belfries of all ChristendomHad rolled along the unbroken songOf peace on earth, good will to men.
Till ringing, singing on its wayThe world revolved from night to day,A voice, a chime, a chant sublimeOf 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 songOf peace on earth, good will to men."
Then peeled the bells more loud and deep:"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;The wrong shall fail; the right prevailWith peace on earth, good will to men."
Originally aired on Discover the Word radio December 19, 2008. Full transcript and MP3 at http://www.rbc.org/radio-tv/discover-the-word/2008/12/19/program.aspx