The story behind one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poems may be familiar to you. The story of personal disaster, depression, and the hope of Christmas has captivated those who have heard it. If you haven’t, here’s the quick version:

In 1861, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was sleeping in an adjacent room to his wife while she was sealing envelopes with hot wax. Fire leapt to the nearby drapes and soon engulfed Longfellow’s wife, Frances. Henry ran into the room and attempted to smother the flames, but it was too late. Frances was burned to death, and Henry was burnt such that he was unable to attend his wife’s funeral. The “Children’s Poet” would begin to grow his signature white beard to cover the scars, and the image of the grizzled and hardscrabble American poet was born.

On Christman day the following year, the grief of his dead wife was too much to bear. Longfellow wrote in his diary on Christmas day: “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” The following year brought more tragedy as the poet’s son Charley enlisted for the North during the Civil War. Henry was an abolitionist but did not want his son to fight. Charley fought in the war until November of 1863 when he was shot in the back and barely survived. Charley was sent to Washington and Henry was there to take him home. They returned to Cambridge in early December just as his seasonal depression began to kick in again. That Christmas season he would write the poem, “Christmas Bells,” which would soon be put to music and become an instant classic. This story of despair met with the hope of the gospel is rightly told by many during the holiday season. But the story, poem, and hymn have an even deeper level which resonates with me this year.

The story, poem, and hymn have an even deeper level which resonates with me this year.

When “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is sung in most churches, the middle stanzas are left out. It’s understandable as the poem was set in a very specific context and the removal of those stanzas makes it generally more applicable. But what are those “missing stanzas”?

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 hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

These stanzas place the despair of the poem in the context of a civil war. We need these two stanzas in order to understand the bleakness of the penultimate stanza:

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!"

The hope and good news of Christmas can soothe any troubled soul, and whatever applications you want to make are surely right, meet, and salutary. But in 2020, what if we sit with the original context of this poem? The poem was borne out of both personal and national tragedy, and 2020 is a year abundant in both. The bells and message of Christmas are being mocked, say the poet, by a country torn in two. Events in the life of the nation made Longfellow temporarily lose hope in the idea of peace on earth.

2020 has brought pain and sorrow to all nations, especially my own. Cynicism, bitterness, and anger has torn families apart. And whether it’s from the constraints and consequences of COVID-19 or family bickering over politics, this might be a particularly hard Christmas. Our main problem is theological, and our sin still seeps into every area of life. But the good news is that God’s grace in Jesus seeps into every area of life, too. Earthly concerns are not too small for a Savior who comes into the world and comes in the form of a very small babe in the manger. And thus, with Longfellow, we can hold the tension of his last two stanzas and proudly proclaim the hope of Christmas:

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."