Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

(Above: Pedro the Lion hear The Bells.)

By Joel Francis

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1864. Christmas had become a bleak occasion for Longfellow. In July, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, decided to preserve a lock of their child’s hair. As she was sealing the hair in wax, a few drops landed on her dress, which caught fire. Panicked, Fanny ran to her husband for help, but he was unable to extinguish the flames in time. Fanny died the next morning. Severely burnt on the face, arms and hands, Longfellow was in no condition to attend the funeral.

Five months later, Longfellow was still in the throes of grief. His Christmas Day journal entry reads “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” Exactly one year later he wrote “Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Christmas Day, 1863 was compounded when Longfellow learned his son had been severely injured fighting for the Union in the Civil War. There was no Dec. 25 journal entry that year. His despair is reflected in the second-to-last verse of “Christmas Bells:”

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!”

Just one year later, Longfellow was starting to emerge from his grief. Lt. Charles Longfellow had survived his injury and lifted his father’s heart. In addition, the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln gave the senior Longfellow hope that the Civil War would end soon. With newfound hope in his heart he wrote of hope and redemption. The poem closes with the realization “old familiar” chorus of the bells are God’s promise to never forget His children.

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!”

“Christmas Bells” has been set to several tunes. The first arrangement appeared in 1870, when Longfellow’s poem was renamed “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and his seven verses were trimmed to five. The melody used today was written by Johnny Marks in 1956 – nearly 100 years after Longfellow set his words to paper. Holiday music would not be the same without the songs written Marks. His contributions to the Yuletide cannon include “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”