Clare County Review & Marion Press

Christmas Bells – Holds hope for today

Each year has its challenges, and 2021 has been no different. Accusations of voter fraud and unfair elections led to the horrific and unfathomable attack on the Capitol in Washington DC, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan brought more turmoil as troops and civilians were evacuated, the fight against the invisible and ever allusive COVIC-19 has led to finger pointing and more accusations, and the list continues with more incidents and events closer to home – horrific tornadoes never before seen, fires out of control eating away natural landscape and homes, disputes between government leaders that seem to have no resolution, weapons of all shapes and sizes used in schools, altercations between family and friends that have led to maiming and even death. Where does it all end?
As beloved Christmas hymns and songs are played across the world, the opportunity presents itself to reflect. Christmas reflection is not new. In 1863, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem “Christmas Bells”.
In 1872, the poem was set to music by English organist John Baptiste Calkin. The hymn was supported by the melody “Waltham” that Calkin had composed in 1848. It was also set to music in the 1845 composition “Mainzer” by Joseph Mainzer. Then in 1956, the most notable setting was composed by Johnny Marks and sung by Bing Crosby as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Bing Crosby’s recording of Mark’s melody highlighted verses 1, 2, 6 and 7 of Longfellow’s poem. Various recording of Mark’s setting have been released since 1956 with millions of copies sold.
Enter Casting Crowns in 2008 with “I Heard the Bells” featured in the Peace on Earth album. Again, Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” poem became the foundation, but the verses are not replicated as exactly as Mark’s version. For Casting Crowns, verses 1, 6, 7 and 3 were interposed with a new chorus.
Whether a listener prefers a more traditional setting from the 1800s or 1960s, or a contemporary version from 2008, the foundation returns to Longfellow whose personal life was turned upside down when his wife died in a fire and his eldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow joined the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War without his father’s approval.
Charles informed his father via a letter. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country, and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”
In “Christmas Bells”, Longfellow references the Civil War in several verses. The refrain “peace on Earth, goodwill to men” is a reference to the King James Version of Luke 2:14.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” tells of the narrator hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, and despairing that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”. In contemporary times, could this despair be because of the disputes, name calling and vindictive behavior of our government leaders that seem unresolvable, or the disputes between family members and friends, or the on-going battle against COVID-19 that morphs into something new each time a “cure” is found, or the fight against drugs that kill as many as war, or…
After much anguish and distress, the poem and carol conclude with the last two verses as the bells ring out resolutely that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” and that there will ultimately be “…peace on earth, good will to men”.
The hope for the future focuses on “peace on earth” brought about by “good will” that must be in the hearts and actions of each individual toward all other individuals.

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