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     Christmas morning was weighing heavily on Henry. He missed his wife Fannie every morning but holiday mornings were even worse.  His heart still ached for the love of his life. The memory of waking from a nap to hear her screams, only to see her completely engulfed in flames, is something he could never forget. After wrapping her in a rug, to no avail, he wrapped his own body around her until the flames were extinguished. His own burns were so severe he could not attend her funeral a few days later, another painful memory. His fingers stroked the white hair of the beard he let grow to cover his own disfiguring scars. Their five surviving children slept upstairs.

    Henry had arrived back home with his oldest son Charley a few days earlier. Charley was part of the Union Army. Toward the end of November, he had received a gunshot wound that nearly paralyzed him.  Henry and his second son, Ernest, went to Washington D.C. to gather Charley and take him back home to Cambridge to convalesce. The horror of the Civil War had come home, but he still believed in the Union cause. Despite the seasonal decorations, it did not feel like Christmas.

   Then out across the lightening snow, a sharp sound startled the still dawn air, again and again. The sound of church bells ringing out, announcing Christmas Day.  He remembered Fannie's smiling face from two Christmas' previous, singing with the bells to greet the glorious morning, "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men." The bells sang out, but her sweet voice was not there to join the joyful melody.  In the depths of his smothering depression, it was jubilation that he did not want to hear or share.  He closed his window to quiet the din, but the sound pierced through the glass panes. "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men," the steeples proclaimed, and he knew people sang.  He knew that the bells would chime throughout the day, and when night came, they would release their glad tidings again, "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men." It was more than he could take.

    "Where is Peace on Earth? Where is Good Will to Men?" he thought.  The country was engaged in a horrific war of unmatched bloodshed, tearing families apart.  The blackness that gripped the country gripped Henry's heart in a thorny noose of pain, frustration, and hopelessness. "All I see is the work of hate, not Goodwill.  There is no peace on Earth, only war.  My dear Charley lays upstairs clinging to life. Where is the joy? Where is the hope?  It is dead. It is all dead. It is as dead as my beloved Fannie." He collapsed back into his chair, bumping the window which opened a sliver.

    The bells pealed again louder as a strange warmth washed over Henry's heart, lighting and releasing the darkness there. He felt the embrace of unseen arms and knew that God was aware. Henry placed his face in his palms and sighed with his whole being as words entered his thoughts, "God is not dead though. He lives. He is with you." Tears filled his eyes, and his body shook.  For the first time in months, he truly felt peace wash over him. A priceless Christmas gift lit his heart. There would still be struggles ahead, but hope and light returned.  Raising his head and wiping his tears, Henry leaned against the chair back to look outside. The ringing which had tormented him now put a smile on his worn face.  He sat for a couple of minutes with his thoughts, musing on this morning's experience.  Turning to his desk, he pulled a sheet of paper, dipped his quill, and began to write.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on Earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on Earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on Earth, good-will to men!

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!

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."

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


  • LindaUdy

    This was my mother’s favorite Christmas carol.
    You knew her as auntie Joe.

  • Roxanne

    This has always been my favorite carol but I never knew the story behind it. Thank you so much for sharing it and giving me the opportunity to feel that God is with us like He was with Henry.

  • Alice

    This was my mother’s favorite Christmas song. Thanks for putting in the full verses and reminding us that war between brothers was raging at the time it was penned. Another great work of art!

  • Heidi

    Thank you! I love this story and forgot that the Civil War was going on when this poem was written.

  • Kathy Hoggan

    Thank you for such a timely reminder of what it’s really important.

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