The Night Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Caught a Flicker of Christmas
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
I heard the bells on Christmas day,
Their old familiar carols played
And wild and sweet, The words repeat
Of peace on Earth, good-will to men
If there’s one Christmas carol that sums up 2020 for me, it’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
The lyrics come from a poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1864. (Isn’t that an amazing name, by the way?!)
It has been musicalized many times, including by the Christian band Casting Crowns. But my favorite version is the one my friend David Burleson wrote for the Christmas EP God at First Sight. (You can watch David sing the song here.) I think David’s composition perfectly captures the journey the poem takes us on.
It begins as a standard Christmas carol. The narrator reflects on the angels’ words on the night Jesus was born: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14, NIV). They are, as the narrator points out, familiar to us.
But then things take a turn. Sentiment doesn’t match up to reality. The narrator is suffocated by grief:
Then 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.”