“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),” Luke 1:68-70 NIV
I really enjoy learning about the history of our Christmas carols, but I was totally unprepared for the comfort this particular carol gave in light of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School this past week.
A well-known American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1817-1882), is credited for writing the original poem called Christmas Blessings on December 25, 1864. It originally had 7 stanzas, but 2 were omitted when it was set to music by John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905).
Henry and Fanny Appleton were married in July, 1843. They settled in Cambridge, MA, where they settled into a happy life with their five children – Charles, Ernest, Alice, Edith and Allegra. In spite of their happiness, tragedy soon marred their lives.
In July, 1861, Fanny wrote in her journal: “We are all sighing for the good sea breeze instead of this stifling land, one filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat, and Edith has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight.”
To help seven-year-old Edith bear the heat, Fanny decided to trim some of her thick curls and preserve them in sealing wax. As she melted the wax over a flame, she accidentally spilled some of the wax on her dress. At that moment the coveted sea breeze blew in and caused the flame to ignite her dress.
In terror, Fanny ran from the room, into her husband’s study where Longfellow tried to unsuccessfully beat out the flames with a small throw rug. As a last resort, he threw his arms around his wife, badly burning his face, arms and hands. Fanny died the next day and Henry was unable to attend her funeral because of his own severe burns.
He grieved hard for his wife as is evident from his journalings. That year at Christmas, Longfellow wrote: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” And “I can make no record of these days. Better to have them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Later he wrote”A Merry Christmas say the children, But that is no more for me.”
When he received that his son Charles had been severely wounded in the Civil War in 1863, Longfellow couldn’t even write in his journal because of the grief in his heart.
But God did begin to minister to Longfellow’s heart. His son returned home and began to recover, though he was crippled for the rest of his life.
On Christmas Day in 1864, he penned the words to the well-loved carol. They have brought comfort to countless grieving hearts through the years, including another well-loved author, Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain following the death of his daughter Jean:
“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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men,”
May the God of all peace bring comfort to your hearts this Christmas season. Amen.