Christmas comfort and consolation

Christmas comfort and consolation

Christmas, traditionally a joyous season, can be depressing for those who have suffered a bereavement. A beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born of his struggle to cope with personal loss and also the horrors of the American Civil War.

On July 9, 1861, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, was involved in an accident. After trimming her daughter’s curls, Fanny placed the clippings in an envelope. As she was sealing it with wax and a lighted candle her dress caught fire. Fanny was engulfed in flames and, despite Longfellow’s desperate attempts to save her, she died the following morning. Her husband was devastated.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s passing, Longfellow exclaimed, ‘How inexpressibly sad are all holidays!’ In his journal entry for December 25th, 1862, he stated that Christmas would never be merry again.

The following year, when his son Charles (a lieutenant in the Union Army) was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow confided his anxiety in a letter to a friend.

On Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow wrote ‘Christmas Bells’. America was still eighteen months away from the end of the conflict that had ripped the nation apart. At one point in the poem, Longfellow says gloomily, ‘There is no peace on earth, for hate is strong.’ He describes cannons drowning the bells proclaiming hope. In the last stanza, however, he affirms his belief in the age-old promise of Christmas: ‘God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!/ The Wrong shall fail/ The Right prevail/ With peace on earth, goodwill to men.’ 

That declaration is remarkable considering all that Longfellow had endured. ‘Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate,’ he had urged in ‘A Psalm of Life’, composed a quarter of a century earlier. Confronted with calamity, Longfellow proved to be, in his words, ‘a hero in the strife’.  Such hard-won triumph over tragedy stemmed from Longfellow’s courage and convictions. Holding fast to faith, this people’s
poet found both refuge and renewal in the comfort and consolation of Christmas.