Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas Bells


Christmas 1864 was a dreary one for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he sat down to draft his poem Christmas Bells.  He had been through a lot of pain and anguish over the recent years.  The nation was in the throes of a costly domestic conflict.  The American Civil War would eventually end the lives of roughly 620,000 Americans, two percent of the population.  The horrible reality of that war would eventually come home to Longfellow. Though stories of war tragedies would bring the nation to collectively mourn, in 1861 Longfellow suffered a more personal tragedy.  Out of that personal tragedy and the horrors of the Civil War, Longfellow would pen his hopeful Christmas Bells poem on Christmas Day 1864.  That poem would later become the inspiration for the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  

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! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom
        Had rolled along
        The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,
        A voice, a chime,
      A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

“Peace on earth, good will to men” seemed distant, unrealistic, if not an outright lie. On July 10, 1861, in their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, had just finished clipping some of their daughter’s curly hair.  In an act of sentiment, Fanny fannylongfellow2wanted to preserve Edith’s locks as a keepsake.  She placed them in an envelope, and began melting wax with a candle to seal it.  While doing this her dress became engulfed in flames from the candle.  Longfellow, who had been napping in another room, rushed to her aid, and attempted to use his own body to extinguish the flames.  He would sustain severe burns to his arms, hands, and face.  But, sadly, his wife died on the morning of July 11, just two days before their 18th wedding anniversary.  Too wounded from his burns and grief stricken, Longfellow did not attend his wife’s funeral.

A profound melancholy fell on Longfellow, though he tried to conceal it. A month after his wife’s death he confided in his wife’s sister, Mary Appleton Mackintosh, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not. I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly—as I have from the beginning—for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end.” 

That first Christmas after Fanny’s death was a disconsolate one for Longfellow. He wrote “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”  A year later, his journal entry for December 25, 1862 was no more cheerful than the one from the year before.  “A Merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” 

longfellowfamily_28956The death of his dear wife Fanny was not the first of Longfellow’s tragedies. In 1835 while in the Netherlands his first wife, Mary, became ill, miscarried their child, and died shortly thereafter.  Then in 1848, after having been remarried, Longfellow’s daughter, also named Fanny, died at 1 year old.  His September 11, 1848 journal entry reads “Lower and lower.  Through the silent, desolate room the clocks tick loud; they all seem laboring on with the fatal hour!…At half past four this afternoon she died.  Fanny and Mary sat with me by her bed side.  Her breathing grew fainter, fainter—fainter, and ceased without a sigh, without a flutter—perfectly quiet, perfectly painless.  The sweetest expression was on her face.  Death seemed lovelier than life.  The room was full of angels where she lay!  And when they had departed—she was gone!”  

The man who had buried two wives and two children would later be touched by the horrors of the Civil War. 

In March of 1863 the Civil War had been raging for nearly two years. Longfellow’s son, Charles, left their Massachusetts home unannounced, traveled to Washington, D.C., andtumblr_n9r7yeewsl1rd3evlo1_500 enlisted in the Union Army.  He attached himself to the an artillery regiment of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery under the command of Captain W.H. McCartney.  Within two weeks of his enlistment, Charles secured a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, likely through some family connections (perhaps because of his famous father, or because of his aunt who was married to a Lieutenant Colonel in the unit). 

As a new 2nd Lieutenant in April and May 1863, Charles saw little action, spending most of his time guarding the supply wagons during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Then in early June, Charles fell ill with typhoid fever or malaria.  His father rushed to his side, making the trip from Massachusetts.  For the next two and a half months, Charles would be laid up and miss the entire Battle of Gettysburg.  He returned to his unit on August 14.  In September 1863 Charles saw his first heavy action near Culpeper, Virginia.  

mineruncampaignOn November 27, 1863, the day after Thanksgiving, his 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, part of General Meade’s Army of the Potomac, was the leading regiment in the march of the 2nd Calvary Division towards Gordonsville, Virginia. After coming through a clearing, the advancing Union troops were met with shot from the Confederate’s cavalry pickets.  In the initial skirmish of what would later be known as the “Mile Run Campaign,” Charles was shot through his shoulder.  The bullet entered his left shoulder, passed through his back, and before exiting under his right shoulder blade, it nicked his spinal cord.

henrywlongfellow1868During dinner at his home in Massachusetts on December 1, Longfellow received a telegram that erroneously informed him his son was severely wounded in the face. He immediately left for Washington, D.C., arriving on December 3. He was given a military pass to enter Virginia to look for his son.  Having found Charles in Alexandria, Virginia, Longfellow escorted him back to D.C.  There a military surgeon informed the elder Longfellow that his son might become paralyzed.  Although other surgeons gave a more hopeful prognosis, Charles’ recovery would be long and uncertain. 

Then from each black, accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
        And with the sound
        The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

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!” 

The church bells on Christmas rang out the message of the Gospel from Luke 2:14 “Glory christmas-bells2to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Yet, this declaration appeared to be a lie.  Profound sorrow, war, death and destruction permeated both the North and South.  What peace?  Brother was at war with brother.  What good will to men?  With the horror of seeing his wife engulfed in flames, and his son nearly lose his life in war, Longfellow despaired despite the calling of the Church bells.  Longfellow wrote to a friend “I have been through a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”  His journal did not capture his thoughts that Christmas of 1863. 

But, his despair did not last. 

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.” 

Amidst the set of his tragedies and hardships, on Christmas Day 1864 Longfellow captured his irrepressible hope in the midst of his circumstances. His experiences told him the Gospel was a lie, but, his trust in a God who is even able to raise the dead overwhelmed his sense of despair.  God is not dead!  He is not asleep.  He is not weak or without power.  When all was said and done, God, who so humbly entered this world that first Christmas morn, had shouted in triumph “It is finished!”  The work of redemption will prevail.  The work of evil will fail.  There will be peace on earth.  God and sinners will be reconciled.  No cannonade, no tragic death, no pain or suffering can prevent the triumph of Christmas. 

mangerstar-lightThe hope announced by Christmas bells can still be heard. Can you hear them?  Though your circumstances may make it seem that it is always winter and never Christmas, the bells peal the hope of Christmas all the more loudly.  God has made a way of salvation and life for us.  Despite the threat of ISIS, a bad economy, and the growing anarchy in America that rejects elections results and secretly applauds the killing of police officers, the message of the Gospel announces the defeat of evil and the triumph of good! Though you may face the loneliness and the heartache of loss, the Christmas bells peal their declaration that hope in the redemption of creation is here! 

Do not despair. Let the bells of Christmas renew your hope of peace on earth, good will to men.  


2014: The Light of Christmas

A year ago American Thinker published my article “The Light of Christmas.”  I posted this article to my blog and it generated a comment from “Judy.”

“You had to demolish one of the greatest movies of all time? Can’t just leave it be for the extreme funny it truly is? Ugh….go take a pill.”

This comment is an example of the problem in our society of favoring feelings and emotions over thinking.  “Can’t you just let us consume our entertainment without pointing out the subtle messages we’re being fed?”

I replied:

“Judy, thanks for commenting. But I think your standards for movies are really low if you think Christmas Vacation is ‘one of the greatest movies of all time.’

“I can’t leave it be for the ‘extremely funny it truly is’ because with the humor it attempts to spread lies. The movie isn’t just a comedy. Whether the director intended to or not, he is pushing philosophy with his movie. I am called as a Christian to be light in the darkness and to expose lies. The lie in Christmas Vacation is particularly pernicious because it is surrounded by humor and emotionalism, making swallowing lies easier.”

Here is an encore of my article.

The Light of Christmas
By Christopher S. Brownwell

One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  My favorite line in the movie comes when Eddie surprises Clark after they arrived in time to see Clark finally successful in getting the lights on his house to work.

Eddie asked Clark “You surprised?”  Clark responded “Surprised, Eddie?… If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.”

While watching this Christmas movie this year, however, I discovered a pernicious lie about Christmas.  Near the end Clark reflected on seeing a light in the neighborhood. “It’s the Christmas Star, and that’s all that matters tonight. Not bonuses or gifts, or turkeys or trees.  See kids, it means something different to everybody.  Now I know what it means to me.”

Griswold Family Looking at the "Christmas Star"This feel-good, post-modern, existential, pluralistic comment doesn’t enhance the meaning of Christmas.  Rather, it attempts to destroy it.  You see, kids, if Christmas means something different to everyone, Christmas has no meaning at all.

To Griswold, the true meaning of Christmas was to bless his family with a pool.  To Frank Shirley, it was to cancel Christmas bonuses and give out one-year subscriptions to the Jelly of the Month Club.  To Margo and Todd it was to avoid things that are dirty and messy and corny and clichéd.  But these different meanings ultimately clashed.

Post-modernism doesn’t believe in a fixed, absolute truth.  Everyone defines his own “truth.”  Existentialism is about defining your own meaning of life through your own personal experiences.  Pluralism has devolved into a personal philosophy comfortable with believing in contradictory truth claims.

Despite Griswold’s post-modern, pluralistic, existential philosophy, Christmas has a fixed meaning.  The message has been the same for 2000 years.  That message is that Light has come into the world to make a way for us to escape the darkness.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5.  “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their works are evil.”  John 3:19.  “Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”  Revelation 2:5.

Light brings knowledge.  “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  II Corinthians 4:6.

America has always been a conduit for that Light to shine.  In 1630, the Pilgrims’ pastor, John Winthrop, encouraged his congregation in the New World that the establishment of their colony would be a city on a hill if they obeyed God. “[F]or wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our City on a hillGod in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us; wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God and all professours for Gods sake….”

The concept of a “City on a Hill,” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, was that all can see the city.  It is exposed.  While exposed, those in the surrounding valley would be guided by its light to a place of safety.  But, what was the source of this light to be passed down from one generation of Americans to another?

Our Founding Fathers knew.

George_WashingtonGeorge Washington in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”

John Adams in his letter to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776: “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”

Benjamin Rush in an essay: “The only foundation for…a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

That message handed down from our Founders is that the Christian faith, which carried the belief in the Light, was indispensible for liberty to exist.  Light had come into the world that first Christmas morn in the form of Jesus.  It is the Light of Christmas that shines from our City on a Hill.

Some, however, want to extinguish that Light because they prefer the darkness.  The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which is not about the military, religion or freedom, and other angry atheists have stepped up their efforts to darken the Light ofShaw Air Force Base Christmas.  Groups like the MRFF swoop onto a military installation with supposed complaints from anonymous service members to get Nativity scenes removed from Shaw Air Force Base and Guantanamo.  Brave warriors, trained to fight despite fear, then cower at MRFF’s demands and remove the offensive Light without a fight.  This type of cowardice goes on throughout our country where public schools remove “Christ the Savior” from “Silent Night” or a Christmas tree from school grounds.

What turns brave men into moral cowards?  Atheism is not to blame.  The philosophy that has been the most successful in hiding the Light of Christmas is the philosophy of Clark W. Griswold.  The reason why there is a war on Christmas and that atheists are winning is because the vast majority of the rest of the country believes just like Clark Griswold, that Christmas means something different to everyone.

The War on Christmas isn’t so much a War on Christmas as much as it is a war on Christ.  There is a war on a specific meaning of Christmas.

You see, kids, if we can define our own meaning of the Star of Christmas, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of sin.  We get to choose our own morality.  We can define our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

So, capitulating to the noisy atheists at Christmas is easier and more desirable than to stand for the Light.  By doing so, many have dealt falsely with God, as Winthrop warned against.

People love darkness rather than Light.  We, as a nation, have no moral clarity because too many of us are thinking in the dark.  Our moral cowardice as a nation is showing in areas like our acceptance of same-sex “marriage,” in our fondness for sexual promiscuity, in our idolatry of sports, sex and alcohol, in our divorce rate.

The light is going out in our churches because we have rejected the Light of Christmas.  As the light goes out in our churches because of moral cowardice in their members, our nation’s lampstand will be removed.  No one has the power to extinguish the Light, but there is One who can remove it.

The philosophy of Griswold is wrong. The ultimate meaning of Christmas must mean the same thing to everyone.  That Light is the only source for our liberty.  If we don’t recognize the true meaning of Christmas, the Light will go out of our nation and we will lose our City on a Hill.