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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


by C.J. Chase

You’re probably familiar with the song, but have you heard the story behind the lyrics to this famous Christmas carol?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in 1807 in Portland—now Maine, but then a part of Masschusetts—the second of eight children. Something of a child prodigy, he and his older brother Stephen graduated together from Bowdoin College in 1825, classmates of another famous American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

To prepare for an academic career in modern languages (all told, he eventually learned seven languages), he embarked on a three-year Grand Tour of Europe—which also provided him with the basis for his first major work, Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. Upon his return to the United States, he taught at Bowdoin, published several short prose works, and married Mary Potter of Portland.

But tragedy was soon to overtake Longfellow. During his second European journey (a requirement for his new job at Harvard), Mary died of pregnancy complications at the age of 22. Some believe the heartbreak added a new depth to Longfellow’s writing. His poetry collection, Ballads and Other Poems, first published in 1841, contains two of his most famous works, “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Village Blacksmith.”

Longfellow continued to write original prose, poetry and drama, rising to become the most popular poet of his day. In 1843, he remarried, this time to Frances “Fanny” Appleton. The couple had six children: Charles, Ernest, Fanny (who died as an infant), Mary, Edith, and Anne Allegra.

In 1861, just as the United States began a long and bloody civil war, Fanny Longfellow’s dress caught fire. Her husband tried to put out the flames, but she died of her injuries the following day. Longfellow himself suffered serious burns to his arms and face that caused him to forever afterward wear a full beard since scarring prevented him from shaving.

Then two years later, 17-year-old Charles (Charley) ran away and enlisted in the Union Army. A serious injury in late 1863 brought his father to Washington to tend his injured son and ended Charley’s short army career.

It was against this dark backdrop of his life that Longfellow penned the poem, “Christmas Bells.”

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."

Though written during the war, the poem was not published until 1872. Organist Jean Baptiste Calkin composed a musical accompaniment, limiting the song version to five of the original seven verses, and leaving out the two dealing explicitly with the war. Here is the famous Calkin tune with Longfellow’s words. It appears in many hymnals—you may well have sung it in your church.



In the 1950’s, Johnny Marks (best known for the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) composed another tune for the same words. Marks’ version has been recorded by artists such as Harry Belafonte, the Carpenters, and Frank Sinatra. Here is the incomparable Bing Crosby singing this version.


Longfellow’s words so speak to the human soul that composers still find inspiration in them. Perhaps you are familiar with this modern version, performed by Casting Crowns:

What a legacy for Longfellow's words. How great it is to know God can use our tragedies to inspire others with love and hope. 

Do you have a favorite version of "I Heard the Bells"? Do you have another favorite Christmas song whose story of origin makes it especially meaningful?


After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her next book, The Reluctant Earl, will be available  February 5, 2013. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at www.cjchasebooks.com


8 comments:

  1. Oh C.J. Thank you so much for this! I had no idea of the history behind this song.
    Our local radio station does a segment on 'the story behind the song' about old hymns and it really blesses me. This is wonderful. I am sure I never saw the two 'war' verses before.

    I actually thought this song was older and from England. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Bowdoin College also as other famous ties to the Civil War. Joshua Chamberlain led the Maine units at the battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He was a professor there and later went on to be president of the College after the war. He plays a large 'role' in the movie Gettysburg.

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  2. Thanks, Deb. I read that Chamberlain (I think) invited Longfellow back to Bowdoin to speak when Longfellow was quite old. Longfellow didn't really want to do it (sounds like he was rather shy away from his circle of academics and writers -- sound familiar?). He spoke so softly no one could hear him.

    I came across this bit of history some years back, so I put together a medley of different "I Heard the Bells" tunes for an organ prelude. And then last week we were going through some Christmas songs with son #1 (he plays violin at a lunch time concert at an extended care facility every month). I saw the song and thought it might be fun to use Youtube to show some of the different ways people have set the words to music over the years.

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  3. Wow. CJ, I didn't know about either of Longfellow's wives. How tragic and sad, but how inspiring. I really enjoy reading about people who hold on to their faith in the midst of darkness.

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  4. Suzie, it is encouraging, isn't it? And it puts our problems into perspective. Easy to feel like we are the only one in the world who suffers sometimes. You should see the pity parties I can throw for myself. Heh.

    I especially thought it interesting how the death of his first wife added so much more depth to his writing, and that's when he also began to achieve a degree of success. I guess the world badly wants to know that there is Hope.

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  5. Suzie, it is encouraging, isn't it? And it puts our problems into perspective. Easy to feel like we are the only one in the world who suffers sometimes. You should see the pity parties I can throw for myself. Heh.

    I especially thought it interesting how the death of his first wife added so much more depth to his writing, and that's when he also began to achieve a degree of success. I guess the world badly wants to know that there is Hope.

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  6. Great post, CJ. I knew that the poem was written at the time of the Civil War, but I didn't know all the details. What a powerful story!

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  7. Count me in as one who didn't know the history of this poem or song. How wonderful that he was still able to write "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep" despite some of his tragic circumstances.

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  8. CJ, thanks for explaining the background to this Christmas carol. I never knew it referred to the Civil War. I suppose I never really listened to all the words before, either.

    I really appreciate the 3 renditions. I hadn't heard the Casting Crowns version and although it's different, it drew me in for a second hearing.

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