OPINION: Political peace at Christmastime?
| December 21, 2022 1:00 AM
With so much turmoil in local politics, is feeling peace possible this time of year?
The amazing true story behind the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” offers some hope.
In 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem “Christmas Bells,” which (in a politically sanitized version) eventually became the text for the beloved carol.
If anyone had the right to question if peace at Christmastime was a fool's delusion, it was Longfellow.
His first love was Fanny Appleton, a free-spirited and independent woman from Switzerland. It took seven years for fiercely independent Fanny to come around to the idea of marriage. When Longfellow received a letter finally accepting his proposal, he couldn’t wait for the carriage and immediately jogged the 90 minutes to her home.
The couple had six children, and his deep love for her is memorialized in many poems.
Then, after 22 years of devotion, Fanny was upstairs in the couple’s home when her dress caught fire from a dropped match. She was almost immediately engulfed. Hearing her screams, Longfellow ran to the room and used his own body and a rug to try to quench the flames.
It was no use.
After painfully slipping in and out of consciousness all that night, Fanny died the next morning.
Longfellow himself was so badly burned that he couldn’t attend her funeral. Her death crushed him. He worried that he would go insane, begging "not to be sent to an asylum" and noting that he was "inwardly bleeding to death.”
Then, still reeling from this trauma, the Civil War rained terror on American life. The Longfellows were staunch Abolitionists, including the children, and Charles Appleton Longfellow, the oldest son, soon ran away to join the Union Army without his father's blessing. Understanding well the war’s carnage, Longfellow was heartsick for his son.
Then, in November 1863, a father’s worst fears came true. Charles was shot through the back in the Battle of Mine Run. Miraculously, he lived.
After an adventurous journey to get Charlie home and recovering, Longfellow found himself alone on Christmas Morning, despairing about his own grief as well as the Nation’s, and listening to the church bells. The following verses are edited out in modern renditions, but they show just how much the Nation’s turmoil shaped this classic Christmas hymn:
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!
The version that we know today was popularized by Bing Crosby in the winter of 1956 — one year after the Brown V Board of Education decision, one year after Emmet Till was brutally murdered, and a year after Rosa Parks defiantly took her bus seat in Montgomery. Saying that the South’s cannons drowned peace on earth was not a commercially popular idea, so it was removed.
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!"
As we examine history in its full context, the carol’s crescendo gains even greater significance.
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.”
At this time of year, no matter what turmoil we may face as a nation or in our own personal lives, may we all embrace Longfellow’s optimism for peace on Earth, and goodwill to men. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, and as Kootenai County Democrats and Americans, we wish for peace on Earth and goodwill to everyone.
• • •
Evan Koch is chairman of the Kootenai County Democrats. Sarah Glenn is the group's communications chair.