The beautiful Christmas Carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, came after a series of personal tragedies occurred in his life. First, in the early 1860s, an unusual heat wave had struck Massachusetts, which affected Longfellow’s family. This prompted Fanny, his wife, to trim the hair of their 7-year-old daughter to help her feel cooler. Sentimentally, Fanny decided to seal the locks of hair with wax, but tragically, hot wax spilled onto her dress and caught on fire. Henry unsuccessfully tried to extinguish the fire with a blanket, and then tried stopping the fire by throwing himself on his wife, which resulted in his face, arms, and hands being burned. Heartbreakingly, Fanny Longfellow died the following morning from her injuries and was buried 3 days later on their 18th wedding anniversary. Due to his own severe burns, Henry wasn’t able to attend her funeral, but later was recorded as saying a line from his famous hymn, The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.
Shortly after this in 1863, Henry was informed (by letter) that his oldest son joined the Union soldiers during the fight of the American Civil War. In November of 1863, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church. These two events together proved to be the foundation for Henry’s famous poem Christmas Bells, which was later put to music and became a famous Christmas carol.
The tragedy that Henry Longfellow endured—and so many others walk through—astounds and humbles me. It is a great reminder that a year can be filled with incredible losses and pain as well as joys and triumphs. Unfortunately, the holiday season takes no exception and can sometimes compound the grief that we have experienced.
Sometimes in the midst of pain, I have questioned what I really have to celebrate. Sometimes the pain can make it difficult to get into the holiday mood. Sometimes real life doesn’t allow us to have a Pinterest-worthy Christmas, yet what I am finding in the cracks and crevices of this Christmas season is that there is simple joy and peace to be found at Christmas.
In focusing on Christ and those whom God has placed in my path to embrace with grace and love, I see the hope of what Christmas is all about. In the midst of the incredible divisions in our country, I bow my head and think, as Henry did back in the Civil War era, that there is no peace on earth; yet the bells that echo throughout this season remind me there is much to rejoice in celebrating the birth of Jesus.
My prayer and dream this Christmas is that I will be preparing my heart as much as my home for this holiday season.
My prayer is that I will take the time to stop and love those who are hurting before me, as much as I take the time to decorate my tree.
My dream is that I will be challenged to give gifts not only to those whom I know well, but also to the hurting person who may need the physical reminder of Christ’s tangible love in more ways that I can imagine.
My hope is that the best gift I can give this year is more of God’s love and more of His grace each and everyday.
My wish is to remind those whom I love that the bells are still ringing with God’s grace and truth.
Rebecca VanDeMark is an author, speaker, and blogger who loves Jesus, life, and the miracle of hope. Rebecca is the author of the newly released book, When Light Dawns: Daily Reflections on Advent & Christmas for Lyme Warriors, and four other previous books including Praying through Lyme Disease and December Caravan, which is a collection of short stories sharing the hope of an ever-present God. Rebecca is the founder of Grace Engaged, a ministry to high school women, and Lyme Caravan Foundation, an organization that helps Lyme disease patients and their families. Rebecca holds degrees from Cedarville University, Regent University, and American University. Before fighting health issues Rebecca worked in Washington, DC, with two non-profit organizations and later taught high school history and Bible classes for seven years. Rebecca loves celebrating the beauty of the ordinary each day as she fights Advanced Late Stage Lyme Disease in addition to other health issues. She lives with her family, splitting time between the sweet south and upstate New York. Rebecca can be found at her personal website or on her blog.