Behind the Song: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day was a Christmas poem {turned hymn} written in the mist of the Civil War in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The song begins with the narrator in despair and ends with a note of hope and renewal.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Earlier in 1863, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had joined the Union army without his father’s knowledge or blessing.  He left word for his father in a note.  He wrote to his father,  “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good”.

In November 1863, Lt. Charles Longfellow was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia.  He would eventually recovery.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had experienced another tragedy two years earlier when his second wife, Fanny, to whom he had been married for 18 years, was tragically burned and died in a fire.

After trimming some of seven-year-old Edith’s beautiful curls, Fanny decided to preserve

Charles, as a child, with his brother, Ernest and mother, Fanny

the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. The longed for sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting the light material of Fanny’s dress– immediately wrapping her in flames. In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry’s study in the next room, where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby, but undersized throw rug.

Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances– severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.

Longfellow would grow his trademark beard to hide the scars from where he attempted to save his wife.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all

Bells are the sound of angels

holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863.

He is said to have heard the Christmas bells that morning and the singing of “peace on earth”.

He tried to capture the dynamic and dissonance not only in his own heart, but in the world around him while finding an hope in the midst of the bleak despair.

 

Bells toll both happy and sad occasions

The poem was published in February 1865, under the title Christmas Bells in the magazine Our Young Folks.

References to the Civil War can be found in some of the verses, although most of these are not sung today.

In 1872, an English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, set the words to music to use as a processional. The lyrics have been set to a variety of other musical arrangements over the years and performed by numerous artists.

Calkin also rearranged the lyrics of Longfellows poem.

What lifts you from despair?

 

You can read the whole poem below:

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!

 

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!”

 

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.”

 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day originated from tragedy during the Civil War #songstory Click To Tweet

 

 

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