New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini celebrates Christmas, past and present, with a wondrous novel inspired by the classic poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
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 1860, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family celebrated Christmas at Craigie House, their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The publication of Longfellow’s classic Revolutionary War poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was less than a month hence, and the country’s grave political unrest weighed heavily on his mind. Yet with his beloved wife, Fanny, and their five adored children at his side, the delights of the season prevailed.
In present-day Boston, a dedicated teacher in the Watertown public school system is stunned by somber holiday tidings. Sophia’s music program has been sacrificed to budget cuts, and she worries not only about her impending unemployment but also about the consequences to her underprivileged students. At the church where she volunteers as music director, Sophia tries to forget her cares as she leads the children’s choir in rehearsal for a Christmas Eve concert. Inspired to honor a local artist, Sophia has chosen a carol set to a poem by Longfellow, moved by the glorious words he penned one Christmas Day long ago, even as he suffered great loss.
Christmas Bells chronicles the events of 1863, when the peace and contentment of Longfellow’s family circle was suddenly, tragically broken, cutting even deeper than the privations of wartime. Through the pain of profound loss and hardship, Longfellow’s patriotism never failed, nor did the power of his language. “Christmas Bells,” the poem he wrote that holiday, lives on, spoken as verse and sung as a hymn.
Jennifer Chiaverini’s resonant and heartfelt novel for the season reminds us why we must continue to hear glad tidings, even as we are tested by strife. Reading Christmas Bells evokes the resplendent joy of a chorus of voices raised in reverent song.
The holiday season is in full swing, and for many it’s a time of joy, celebration and memory-making. For others, it’s a time of stress, heartache and painful reminders of what is missing or what could have been. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew this keenly as he struggled with the death of his wife, faced the uncertainty and troubles of the Civil War and worked to maintain his career and family. In 1863 he penned the now-beloved poem “Christmas Bells”, which ultimately would be set to music and sung around the world:
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!
The poem goes on to recount images and sentiments of Longfellow’s life as he felt despair, fear, but ultimately faith in light of all the calamity taking place around him and throughout the divided Union in the 1860’s. The novel Christmas Bells recounts a handful of these years as historical fiction, taking facts from Longfellow’s life and shaping them into an extended narrative. We see Henry as a doting husband, tragically made a widower by the loss of his beloved Fanny. He also plays the emotionally fragile father, desperate to keep his son from joining the army to fight alongside his peers. As a professional writer, he exhibits the struggles many have in putting pen to paper, eking out quality work in an effort to not only express himself, but also provide for his family.
Christmas Bells also presents a later time period, our present day as seen in alternating chapters. Here we meet a wide cast of characters living in Longfellow’s hometown, all connected at least in part to St. Margaret’s, a historic Catholic church in Massachusetts. We meet a music teacher, her accompanist, a faithful nun, a priest, a wife of a soldier in Afghanistan and others. Their stories all intersect differently, affecting each other in minor and major ways. In a metaphorical way, their lines form the verses as paired with the refrain of Longfellow’s story in the opposite chapters.
I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Bells. It has the feel of a classic tale with the 19th century setting, but the modern aspect of it is also warm and inviting. I found Henry’s story to be a melancholy one, seemingly beset with constant anxiety over his family’s situation. That said, it was not mood-lowering at all. Henry’s struggle to keep his son safe from the war, and then later to overcome battle-related problems was compelling for this mother to read. Although I enjoy most things related to that era, my interest in the Civil War has never extended much beyond Gone with the Wind, and even my love for that has waned over the years. While raised in the American South, I don’t side with many of the agendas that were advanced on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. The racism and ignorance that remain generations later is repellent to me, so I do not prefer to read novels that are sympathetic to the Rebel cause or any descendant of it. Thankfully, Christmas Bells is told from the Union side of the story, with allegiances for the North being more prominent. War propaganda is not the main power behind these chapters, however. The focus is on the Longfellow family, and in particular Henry Longfellow.
The metaphorical verses contained within the modern chapters took me by surprise. When beginning Christmas Bells, I thought my preference would be to remain solely within Henry’s time, as that is what drew my interest to the book initially. However, Jennifer Chiaverini constructs such an interesting piece with the many voices of her modern narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her characters, both old and young. Their individual stories were compelling, and their corporate interactions were much the same. I was keenly impressed with how she managed to bring their voices in and out, much like a musical concert. My only complaint is that I desired more time with each one. As their individual stories concluded, I found myself wanting more. This was particularly felt in the tale of the musical director and her pianist. When their chapters ended, I was keenly disappointed that we didn’t have more details in their conclusion.
For those who adore the Christmas season and for those who anticipate it with at least a small sense of anxiety, Christmas Bells is an excellent choice for the holiday and weeks surrounding it. Moreover, it can certainly transcend the Christmas season. This is a tale of family, faith, and history. It is not so much an Advent story, but one of love in times of trial and uncertainty. I now have a greater appreciation for Longfellow’s classic poem, and will keep the verses presented in this novel in mind as I sing his lyric for years to come. In a modern world of calamity and uncertainty, we can all have the hope and confidence that God is not dead. He does not sleep. Right will prevail over wrong in the end, “with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of several acclaimed historical novels and the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as six collections of quilt patterns inspired by her books. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, Quiltmaker's 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. About her historical fiction, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, "In addition to simply being fascinating stories, these novels go a long way in capturing the texture of life for women, rich and poor, black and white, in those perilous years."