Earlier this month I was sifting through classic holiday songs I might record as a special end-of-year gift to the people who have been a part my life in a meaningful way this past year. (If you’re reading this now, you’re part of that group, to be sure.) So many of my favorites from the years are full of images of joy and celebration, happiness and cheer. So many great songs.
And then I came across “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” I have to admit, I’d never really considered this song much. It was always tucked into old hymnals from church growing up, but it certainly wasn’t one of the “fun” Christmas songs, and so I had always overlooked it and moved on to the more chipper tunes.
But when I read the words to this song this year – based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – it quickly became a new favorite. I’ll write the full text of the lyrics below.
This is not a happy-happy holiday song. Instead, it describes the narrator’s experience of hearing Christmas bells, which should be bringing a song of joy on a day like this; but rather than having an experience of jubilation, the narrator expresses despair. The bells, which ring out “peace on earth, good will to men,” peal out in dissonance to the painful truth of the world he sees around him. “There is no peace on earth … hate is strong, and mocks the song of ‘peace on earth, good will to men.'” Wow.
I understand that experience. I have it, too, when I look around at much of the world around us. It can be despairing, hopeless. There is a lot of pain, anger, and frustration in people’s lives and in our public discourse, not to mention the war, disease, and hunger that define the experience of many of our brothers and sisters on this planet. It’s tempting – especially during times like Christmas, when we feel like we’re supposed to be happy and cheerful – to look away from the darkness and to try to shut it out of our consciousness with parties, gifts, decorations, and happy songs.
But here’s where this particular song doesn’t let us down: the final verse talks about the turning of the world to a new day, and that the bells continue their song of “peace on earth, good will to men” throughout it all. After looking squarely into the pain of his own life and the world around him, the narrator expresses a new hope. He sees that even through that dark night, the bells have steadfastly chanted their song of peace and good will. To me, it’s a realization that the power of love is that it rings steady even through the despair, not despite it.
So, the lesson I took from this beautiful song this year – and one that I hope we can embrace together – is this: I will not look away from the darkness. I will do my best to carry a song of love, peace, and goodwill as I walk through the messiness, uncertainty, and fear that surround and permeate our experience here on this earth we share. I believe this is the triumph of humanity – that our collective song rings out even in our darkest days – and that gives me hope.
Peace and good will to you, and to us all – shannon
“I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Peace on earth, good will to men
I 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
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead not does he sleep”
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With 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”
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