By Vincent Lyn with William A. Verdone
He was seated at his kitchen table in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River, experiencing the familiar melancholy that often engulfs us when life appears to suppress all the happiness within us. This feeling was intensified on that particular Christmas morning in 1864 for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Civil War was in full swing, and he was still grieving the tragic loss of his wife three years prior. Additionally, he understood the anguish of being a parent with a child risking their life on the battlefield. Now, he received news that his son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had suffered severe injuries in combat. So, the great poet reached for his pen:
“I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old, familiar carols play; and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
But the lines were coming from his head, not his heart.
His cherished wife, Fanny, had been positioned near an open window on a scorching July day in 1861, delicately melting a stick of sealing wax. Unexpectedly, a gentle breeze caused a scalding droplet to cascade onto her dress, instantly igniting a consuming blaze. In response to her anguished screams, Longfellow hurriedly rushed to her aid, desperately attempting to extinguish the inferno with a small rug. In doing so, he inflicted severe burns upon his own face, hands, and arms, rendering him incapable of attending her funeral.
Even on that Christmas morning in 1864, he remained burdened by grief, the sorrow of which can be likened to love with no outlet. Longfellow’s enduring love for Fanny enveloped him entirely, possibly rendering him more susceptible to a sense of hopelessness as he contemplated the state of the world around him. This despondency mirrors the emotions experienced by many of us in today’s era, when confronted with a ceaseless barrage of chilling crimes, unbridled avarice, virulent animosity, and toxic political discourse.
So Longfellow continued to write:
“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, goodwill to men.’ “
Have you ever felt that way?
Charles, in the process of recovering from a grave injury caused by a bullet that had struck his spine a year prior, was still undergoing a gradual healing process. The culmination of America’s internal conflict was yet to come, with four more months passing before Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox courthouse, signifying the end of the nation’s war against itself.
Amidst these circumstances, a prevailing sense of optimism remained elusive. These were the contemplations coursing through the troubled mind of the exceptionally talented writer, renowned for bestowing upon us literary treasures such as “Evangeline,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
Nevertheless, Longfellow was also a man of profound faith, recognizing that faith must prove steadfast even in the most dire of times, or else it holds no substance at all.
So, believing in the story of an angel who announced the birth of a savior to shepherds watching their flocks in a field by night, he reached the conclusion that transformed his poem into the much-loved carol it’s been for the past 160 years:
“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, goodwill to men.’ “
Indeed. May it be so.
The phrase “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” often associated with the Christmas season is a reflection of the message of hope, harmony, and compassion that is traditionally celebrated during that time. It emphasizes the ideal of universal peace and goodwill among all people.
The phrase is a call for humanity to strive for peace and to treat one another with kindness and understanding. It encourages people to set aside differences and conflicts, and to work towards creating a world where, there is mutual respect, compassion, and cooperation.
While achieving global peace may be a complex and ongoing endeavor, the sentiment behind the phrase serves as a reminder of the importance of promoting harmony and goodwill in our interactions with others. It encourages us to seek peaceful resolutions to conflicts, to show empathy and compassion towards those in need, and to foster a sense of unity and understanding among diverse communities.
The concept of “peace on earth” is an aspiration shared by many, symbolizing a state of harmony, tranquility, and goodwill among all people. While the achievement of universal-peace is a complex and ongoing endeavor, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact timeframe for its realization. It remains a collective responsibility to work towards peace in our individual actions, communities, and on a global scale.
The pursuit of peace requires continuous efforts in fostering understanding, resolving conflicts, promoting justice, and embracing compassion. It is a goal that humanity strives for, even if its complete attainment may extend beyond our current understanding of time.
The famous saying, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” was printed on so many Holiday and Christmas cards (even Easter cards) when your co-author was growing up. It was never an after-thought of doubt to see these words on cards before and after World War l and World War II, in an elegant font, decorated with wreaths, idyllic snow settings, cardinal birds, and festive multi-colored candles, wishing for peace. To read them was traditionally inspiring, full of hope, and a deep and convincing sense of…”Gee, why not?” Of course, many conflicts later, this sentiment is no longer seen on cards. At a recent event, attending a viewing of a film about the war in Ukraine, “Mariupol Unlost Hope,” the Ukrainian Consul General Oleksii Holubov, Ambassador Malik Nadeem Abid, International Human Rights Commission, Vincent Lyn, and I participated in a discussion afterwards (both the film and the discussion are on YouTube.) During my short speech I quoted the adage, “Peace of earth, goodwill to men.” and then I paused and added…”When?”
CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)
Editor-in-Chief at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts
William A. Verdone
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Former History Professor New York University