On Tuesday, July 9, 1861, with the nation in a midst of civil war, a fire in the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow claimed the life of his beloved wife, Fanny. Henry had tried to save her from the raging flames and sustained serious burns. Fanny was buried three days later, on their 18th wedding anniversary, while Henry was confined to bed, fighting to live.
Listen to the story, as told by Edward Herrmann and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Its message is more important and relevant than ever:
"...For Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as one war rages without, another rages within. For the next two years, Christmases come and go. Henry writes, 'How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays. "A merry Christmas!" say the children, but that is no more for me. Perhaps some day God will give me peace.'
"And then Henry learns that his eldest son, Charles, who ran away to join the army, has been critically wounded in battle. Henry rushes to Washington to bring his son home, and after days of searching, he finds him barely alive. With the outbreak of war, Fanny's terrible death, and now two years later his son desperately clinging to life, we should not be surprised that on Christmas Day 1863, Henry reaches for his pen and writes, "It was as if an earthquake rent the hearthstones of a continent. 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.'
"Reading his words today we ask, when conflict rages, and pain, grief and loneliness overwhelm us, where is the music of hope and peace? For Henry, the answer to that question has everything to do with Christmas. After Fanny's death, he had written, 'So strong is the sense of her presence upon me, that I should hardly be surprised to look up now and see her in the room. Death is a beginning, not an end.'
"On that Christmas morning, it is clear to Henry that war, injury, and even death are not the end. The rising sun turns the icy river to silver, and the windows of the Longfellow home to gold. Henry's children bundled in winter wool are whisked past snowy fields through wooded hills and valleys along the road to home. They look up, blinking and giggling in the falling snow, and they hear the sounds that make Christmas Christmas. They hear the bells! From his desk, Henry hears them too. Renewed, he plunges his pen into fresh ink, joyfully drawing it across a sheet of snow white paper:
"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."
"In those bells the message is clear: on Christmas day a child was born in a stable. Of that child Henry writes, 'Tho in a manger thou draw breath, thou art greater than life and death.' And so He is!
"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."
"As the bells ring on Henry dips his pen again and again. Because Christmas lives on, Fanny lives on, Charles lives on, a nation lives on. And we, each one of us, may live on as well, in hope and peace forever."