I first remember the bearded face of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from the Authors card game that my sister and I had when we were in elementary school.  We would sit at the kitchen table and competitively seek to complete our sets of cards bearing the names and portraits of writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

It was only this week that I learned of the tragedy behind Longfellow’s trademark beard.  In July of 1861, his wife Frances was severely burned when her dress mysteriously caught fire in their home.  In rushing to her aid to extinguish the flames, Henry himself was quite badly burned.  Frances, the mother of Longfellow’s six children, died the next day.  Longfellow was devastated by Frances’ death, just as he had been when his first wife Mary died after a miscarriage in 1835.  Longfellow’s facial injuries from the fire caused him to stop shaving. 

On Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow was still grieving the death of Frances.  He was also deeply troubled by the news that his oldest child, Charles, had been seriously wounded in Virginia while serving in the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War.  But, despite his downcast heart and mind, his spirits were lifted by the sound of church bells ringing near his home.  That day, he penned “Christmas Bells” which was later set to music in the Christmas carol, “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
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!”

While hate is still strong and still mocks the song of “Peace on Earth,” Longfellow was absolutely correct to proclaim that God is neither dead nor sleeping.  Right will prevail.  Wrong will fail.

Despite difficult and trying circumstances that you may be experiencing today, I pray that each of you will rejoice in the inner calm, tranquility, and hope that can only come from the Prince of Peace.  The unbroken song continues.  Merry Christmas!

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