I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: A History

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.”

On December 25, 1863, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”, presented above, after a few difficult years. In 1861 his cherished wife was tragically killed in a fire, and earlier in 1863 his oldest son Charles joined the Union army fighting in the American Civil War without Longfellow’s knowledge or blessing. That November, Charles was severely injured in the Battle of New Hope Church (read more here). In the context of the Civil War, the poem takes on a new meaning of despair and faith as Longfellow grappled with his own losses with the hopeful message of Christmas. For a more in-depth background of the poem, read here.

*Fun fact: two stanzas referring to the Civil War were removed when the poem was set to music.

“Christmas Bells” was not set to music until several years later. Since then various versions have emerged, but the most common musical setting was composed by English organist John Baptiste Calkin in 1872 (read more about him here).

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