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The story behind 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'

One of my favorite Christmas Carols is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.  With its clear, straight forward lyrics and melody it spoke movingly peace on Earth and goodwill toward man.

Yet there was that one stanza that always kind of jarred me.
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!"

Such a discordant note against the otherwise stirring and hopeful lyrics sent me to researching the song’s history.

The words for ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ come from the poem ‘Christmas Bells’ written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. One of America’s finest and best loved poets, Longfellow (1807-1882) penned such famous works as Paul Revere’s Ride and The Song of Hiawatha.

Longfellow wrote ‘Christmas Bells’ on Christmas Day, 1864.  The American Civil War still raged, though hope loomed on the horizon with Union advances and the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.  Two stanzas eventually left out when John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905) wrote the tune in 1872 spoke of ‘thundering cannons drowning out carols’, and ‘ a continent made forlorn’.  The national juxtaposition of hope and uncertainty was even more acute for Longfellow.

On July 9th, 1861, just three months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter opened the Civil War, the Longfellow family suffered a very personal tragedy.  An oppressive heat wave in Massachusetts prompted Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, to trim the heavy locks of their seven year old daughter, Edith. Fanny decided to preserve little Edie’s curls.  As she heated wax to seal the envelop, hot drops fell unseen onto her dress.  A sudden breeze set the smoldering dress afire.  In an effort to protect her young daughters from the flames, Fanny rushed into Longfellow’s study.  Longfellow first tried to extinguish the flames with a rug, and when that failed he threw his body onto his wife, severely burning his face, arms and hands.  Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. 

Frances Appleton was the great love of Longfellow’s life.  Their courtship lasted seven years.  She was the subject of the sonnet, "The Evening Star," which he wrote in October, 1845. (“O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and my evening star of love!"). Longfellow’s grief and injuries were so great he was unable to attend her funeral.

In his journal that first Christmas after his wife’s death Longfellow wrote: "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."  His journal states:  "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.", on the anniversary of Fanny’s death.  For Christmas, 1862, Longfellow writes: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."

In late 1863 Longfellow received word that his eldest son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, had been severely wounded and crippled in battle.  Longfellow made no journal entry for Christmas, 1863.

On Christmas Day, 1864, Longfellow wrote ‘Christmas Bells’.  The sound of the pealing bells penetrates the despair Longfellow has been experiencing, filling him with a sense of hope that:     “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail ...”

Here is ‘Christmas Bells’ with the stanzas deleted when John Baptiste Calkin set the words to music in 1872.

"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!"

Four months later the Civil War ended.  The nation began, and Longfellow continued, the long, difficult road to recovery.  The grief over Fanny’s death lessened, but never left Longfellow entirely.  Eighteen years after her death he penned the sonnet, “The Cross of Snow”, where he wrote: Such is the cross I wear upon my breast\These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes\And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

On Christmas Day, in 1864, the sound of the bells reached through Longfellow’s grief and despair to remind him what Christmas is all about: Hope.  Hope that God is neither dead nor asleep.  Hope that Right will prevail over Wrong.  Hope that peace and good-will cover the earth.

The lesson of ‘The Christmas Bells’ is about coming to understand that though it may not seem so at times, hope awaits, patiently, sometimes unseen, for those who faithfully persevere. 

So listen for the bells.  They’re ringing.  They’re always ringing, just waiting for us to listen.  And have hope.


Db hugs on December 02, 2014:

Wonderful, moving words about a wonderful man.

William G. Jennings (author) from Texas on December 20, 2012:

Thank you for your kind words, Connie. I am honored and humbled that you deem my article worth sharing. Thank you so much.

Connie on December 17, 2012:

I have stumbled upon this after the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut. Your message is beautiful, and so perfect for what we are feeling today. Thank you. I hope you don't mind, but I am sharing it on my social networks because I believe many people could benefit form reading it now.

jessicab from Alabama on December 24, 2009:

Very interesting hub and I am looking forward in reading more from you.