One of the things that I most like about this season of the year is the music. Plato wrote about music saying, “Music gives wings to the mind. Flight to the imagination. And life to everything.”

Certainly, life expresses in numerous ways music and harmony. There is a message in music that speaks to the deeper, inner yearnings of every person. It is a language of the soul that can inspire or depress. It has always been part of the story of Christmas and New Year’s. There is in this thing of music an important and vital message for every one of us. It isn’t just religious. It is deeply and practically essential in the natural and human being. Life has a harmony, a rhythm, a melody that transfuses the whole and transcends the individual. There is the heartbeat, the pulse, the basic harmony of the physical body’s rhythmic functioning and the social relationships in which we engage.

There are times when this natural harmony, rhythm and melody are upset. This comes as disharmony; unrhythmic and unmelodious things intrude into our lives. Life seems to be out of order and we can’t seem to get things going right. There are even mental disorders and discouragements. Sad things intrude and life’s melody is interrupted. Such a thing happened to one of America’s greatest literary figures and poets — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow’s daughter had beautiful long hair, and it was summer time in 1861. She wanted it cut and finally her parents were convinced. Her hair was cut and her mother Fanny wanted to preserve some of her hair for the future. Fanny was preparing to do that by melting wax in which to encase some of the strands of her daughter’s beautiful hair. She had a flame melting the wax to complete this project when a gust of wind came through the window and the flame flared toward her catching her dress on fire. She screamed as flames engulfed her.

Longfellow in the next room writing heard her. He tried to put out the fire, embraced her and vigorously tried to extinguish the flames to little avail. Finally, he was able to get them put out and they tried to help her recover. She died the next day from her severe burns. The Civil War came that year, and later Longfellow’s son was seriously wounded.

Longfellow wrote in his journal of this experience in Fanny’s death, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” Later he would write, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” His journal entry for December 25th of 1862 said, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He could not enjoy any holiday after such tragedies. For a long time there was nothing that he could do to celebrate or joy in because of his great loss. Life’s harmony and rhythm had been interrupted and he seemed not to be able to get it back. Then came 1864 and he heard the bells on Christmas Day and life’s harmony came back into his experience.

This is the story behind that great Christmas song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Let us take the time to just read this great poem written in the midst of tragedy and pain in Longfellow’s life and remember the wonder of life’s melody, life’s harmony and rhythm. Longfellow titled his poem “Christmas Bells”.

“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!”

Longfellow came once again to recognize the great truth that underlays all of life, even though tragedies and sorrows come to us. It is the message of that first Christmas when the little baby, helpless as an infant, faced the hate and horror of Herod and the foes of faith, as well as the celebration of parents and the wise men who brought gifts.

Longfellow captures in this great poem the truth of this season and the reality of a God who is not dead and who does not sleep. He knows and He is real. This fact we must once again affirm with Longfellow also as we celebrate tomorrow this Christmas Day — “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” There is the reality of lying, cheating, hate, vile betrayal and depressing rhetoric, but through all that there is the real music and angelic music of right, good and joyous songs celebrating the reality of salvation, redemption and God’s goodness.

Have a wonderful, joyous, melodious Christmas. Enjoy the music!

Let me hear from you on what you think about Christmas music and life’s rhythms. Share that with me at drjerryhopkins@yahoo.com . You may also reach me by “snail” mail at Dr. Jerry Hopkins, P. O. Box 1363, Marshall, Texas 75671.

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Jerry Hopkins is a historian and retired university professor.