“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Reconsidered

200xmasECW has been experiencing a phenomenon of sorts. Apparently one of our older posts, December 13, 2011, has suddenly become very popular–more popular than when it first was published. And when I say popular, I am not talking about ten or twenty hits. I am talking hundreds here.

The holiday season brings out the sentiment in us all, but why this post, and why this year? Did some high school teacher assign a topic on American carols, and the results went viral? Is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suddenly a hot poet and this is just affiliated runoff? The Sesqui is over, after all. I thought most folks had moved on–but apparently not.HenryWLongFellow1868-300x344

I decided to dig around the dusty lair that is my computer to see if I could find a pattern that might shed some illumination on this particular trend. After all, I am–by training–a mathematician as well as a historian. And I got results! Sad results, but maybe an answer lies somewhere within.

Our world is pretty much in shambles just now: Paris has been shot up, and France is getting help from her allies to try and do something about it, third-party people like journalists are being murdered publically simply for the crime of looking for a story, planes get shot out of the sky, young black men, many with a grudge already, seem to be falling in droves under withering gunfire, and mothers of 6-month old babies are exchanging Pack & Plays for AK47s and dying in the process.

Politically, it looks like the 1850s all over again. “Across the aisle” agreement seems as impossible now as it did when slavery was the issue. This time it feels like everything is the issue. The bitterness toward our current president is reminiscent of that felt for Lincoln even before he took office. We have modern fire eaters who promise the end of the world as we know it unless we . . . build walls, keep lists, pre-judge, burn bridges and railroads, lynch, and continue the agitation. (I don’t know about you, but I am already agitated enough, thank you.)

What I take from these and other parallels to the American Civil War is this– America still reels from the effects of that conflict. From church windows to flag displays, from license plate frames to monuments, we have uncovered enough simmering resentment to last another lifetime or two. No one knows the truth of the claim that “the war is not yet over” more than we who toil in the mines of Civil War history. America has a lot more reconstruction and reconciliation ahead.

Young Charlie Longfellow
Young Charlie Longfellow

We are being tasked with this effort during a time when things seem particularly hopeless. Does it seem more so because of the 24-hour news cycle? Many say so, but we who read Harpers Illustrated Weekly as well as CNN News on line are not so sure. There have always been tense times. But when they come, most folks look for something to soothe their souls. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow felt the same way. He was angry, bitter, afraid. His son was terribly shot up. Every wounded warrior in history has had someone who loved him or her question the cause for which that loved one fought, and Longfellow was no exception. The church bells, ringing for everything that Christmas should stand for, mocked him. He struck back with a poem.

Perhaps the resurgence of this old post says that people are looking for a way to make some meaning out of 21st century chaos. Longfellow’s lovely words ring as true as a Christmas bell for 2015 as they did for 1863. Listening to “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day” does not slander those of us who still believe, with a faith as abiding as that of the mid 1800s, that someone hears our prayers for peace. Huzzah, and Halleluiah.christmas-bells



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