Americans have spent many Christmases at war. We have shared the mixed feelings that come from the contradiction between the Christmas spirit, patriotic fervor and the deep sense of loss all of us share when soldiers die fighting for our country.
Henry David Wadsworth Longfellow, the American poet of the 19th century, knew these feelings well. For him they were strongest at Christmas time in 1863, when a weary America was in the middle of a bloody Civil War.
The battle of Gettysburg, where the two armies suffered 40,000 casualties, had ended little more than five months before. The suffering touched millions of Americans, including Longfellow, whose own son lay bleeding, soon to die.
Longfellow shared his feelings with a poem that reflects at first the anguish that he and many Americans were feeling.
“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.’”
But then Longfellow, inspired by the Christmas bells, found once again the hope that is promised by the birth of Christ.
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men.”
That poem was put to music later by J. Baptise Calkin and is known today as the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
The message of hope still lives in the Christmas story and the hearts of those who reach out to others. Merry Christmas.