He Dwells Not Far Off: Reflections on Christmastime

The peace on earth and good will to men we so desperately long for are only possible because of that lowly manger scene.

Christmas is the only holiday I can think of that comes with its own soundtrack—a plethora of artists and albums we draw from each year to get into the holiday spirit.

Everyone has their favorite go-to songs this time of year, but many of them really end up spreading the same message of Christmas cheer. Themes of joy, light-spiritedness, and laughter echo all around.

But there’s one song coming to mind that gets at two other important themes for the season: “peace on earth” and “good will to men” as the tune repeats.

The lyrics to the song ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ date back to the mid-nineteenth century. They were originally written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a most respected literary critic and poet of his day. We sing them aloud in church, on the street, and through the radio this Christmas season, but as with most pieces of art, there’s a seldom-told story behind this song’s profound message—in this case, a story of pain and tragedy.

Longfellow lived with his family, a wife, Fannie, and six children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But in the early 1860s, Fannie’s dress caught on fire. Henry tried all he could to save her, sustaining critical burns to his own face as a result, but try as he might to extinguish the fire, she died the next morning.

The first Christmas after her death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays,” later describing himself to a friend as “inwardly bleeding to death.”

Have you ever felt that way?

By 1864, the Civil War was in full swing. The country, less than 100 years old, was tearing itself apart from the inside out in the midst of what still to this day remains America’s …

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