I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is one of those songs that most people know exists, but they've never really listened to it. It's the filler song on the Christmas album, just wasting space between Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire and Silent Night.
I think it fair to say that its writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was broken. He had lost his first wife and the baby she was carrying. His second wife had died from a tragic accident with fire. His son had been wounded in battle. The Civil War raged.
Christmas comes, and when we have been hurt, ripped up, all those sweet songs are like salt in our wounds. So false. So artificial. "Give me a freakin' break," we mutter. The first Christmas after his second wife's death, Longfellow wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."
That discord between our pain and the joy around us ... it's like a magnifying glass for our pain.
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.
It doesn't compute. It doesn't make sense. Reality intrudes and we reject the pretty words, melodies, ideas.
And in despair I bow'd 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."
But if we are lucky, if we have just the teeniest little opening, we may find that hope manages to squeeze in there. Hope that we'll survive. Hope that there is a greater meaning. Hope that the world will get better.
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.”
There's many versions of this song, but I think my favorite is that of Johnny Cash. His voice, gravelly, a little flat in places, seems more attune to the story than other versions. Now if I could just find a naked version that strips "the Nashville sound" out of the background. A pox on Chet Atkins.