Thanks to Larry and Susan for reminding me of this song and the story behind it.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Words: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863;
From his poem “Christmas Bells

Music: “Waltham,” John Baptiste Calkin, 1872.
Alternate Music: “Mainzer,”Joseph Mainzer, 1845; Johnny Marks, 1956

I mentioned in the post for my #3 good song that so many of the great Christmas songs come from a place of solemnity, sadness, longing for someone to save us from ourselves. As Crystal said in her comment, “Sadness, longing, hope, loneliness – Why is it that the heart has to bleed before you get such beauty?” I’ve often said that the truth must often break your heart before it sets you free.

This song definitely comes from a place of sadness, in fact it could easily qualify as one of the depressing Christmas songs from the last post. But it’s not a “woe is me” song, it’s a “woe is us” song. Longfellow wrote the original poem during the US Civil War, and all he could see and hear around him was death and despair. His country was coming apart, and the Christmas bells he heard beneath the sound of guns and cannon fire sounded hollow:

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!

We don’t always hear the fourth and fifth stanzas though, they are often left out of hymnals and recordings of the song:

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!

A northerner and an abolitionist, Longfellow’s despair is clear, but the sorrow contained in the poem is not only for his country. In July 1861, three years before he wrote the poem, Longfellow’s wife Fanny Appleton was burned in a fire in their home. Longfellow himself was badly burned while trying to protect their children and save his wife. She died the next day. Fanny was Longfellow’s second wife, his first died in 1835.

The War was also personal to Longfellow. His oldest son Charles ran off to join the Union Army in 1863 at the age of 17. In November, Charles was injured in the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. He was shot through the left shoulder. The bullet traveled across his back, and nicked his spine. Longfellow heard about the injury in December and brought Charles home to Massachusetts. While tending to his son, he wrote these lines:

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!”

In the nearly 150 years hence, Longfellow’s words still ring as true. The Civil War ended and the United States remained united, but with deep divisions that continue to this day. Slavery was abolished, only to give way to Jim Crow and eventually a more genteel, hidden racism that has long been practiced in the North. Wars and rumors of wars still rage, and the weak continue to be trampled by the strong.

The first parts of the song ring true, but the last verse is hard to believe sometimes…at least it is for me. Peace on earth and goodwill to men? Now that the hippies have grown up we don’t even sing songs about peace any more, except at Christmas. It’s like we stopped believing it was possible. The ideas of peace and The Prince of Peace have become fictional characters in a badly acted church play.

Sometimes I wonder if Longfellow really believed it even as he wrote it. As you would expect, he mourned his wife’s loss for the rest of his life, but his son recovered. The bullet having only nicked his spine, Charles was spared paralysis and recovered fully. He even rejoined the Army, traveled around the world, and lived another 30 years.

Perhaps Henry Wadsworth Longfellow saw a little hope in his son’s eyes, and that was enough for him to write that last stanza. As long as we have hope, there can be a measure of peace and goodwill; if not all over the earth at least in our hearts.

≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈

This version by Casting Crowns is quite the thing, offering yet another melody to set the poem to (sorry about the commercial at the end for TBN):

And when you get a chance to put up a Johnny Cash video, you put up a Johnny Cash video:

I have searched and searched for a decent video with the two “Civil War verses,” no findee. Too controversial I guess. This is as close as I can get, they talk about “the missing verses” but they don’t sing them 😦 If you know of a good one, put the link in the comments:

* The phrase “black accursed mouth” refers to the mouths of cannons, not African American slaves.


2 thoughts on “The 12 Good Songs of Christmas: #2

  1. Thank you, Joe. I enjoyed reading this history and as usual, you know how to pick the right vids to go with it. Peace and Hope to you!

  2. Thank you for posting this. We are on the road. Soon as I can get to my computer (on iPhone now) I’ll watch the Cashes version. I too struggle with “the right prevail” in the midst of so much sorrow, I don’t see time from Gods POV

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