Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Pens "Christmas Bells"

Dec 25, 1863

Christmas during the Civil War was a quiet and solemn time. As soldiers went into winter camp, the nation looked back on a year of bloodshed and forward to a new year with hopes that the conflict would end. This mood is perhaps best captured by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells,” which he wrote on Christmas Day in 1863.

Longfellow, who lived most of his adult life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was among America’s most significant writers. The author of The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Evangeline was the center of Boston’s literary world and an international celebrity in his lifetime.

The period of the Civil War was one of the lowest in Longfellow’s life. In July of 1861, his wife Fannie was using wax to seal an envelope containing trimmings of her daughter’s hair. Drops of the hot sealing wax landed on her dress, and the wind coming through the window caused it to ignite. Fannie’s dress went up in flames. Longfellow desperately tried to put out the fire, but Fannie was killed and he was very badly burned.

In March of 1863, Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charles added to his despair by running away to join the Union army. Charles made his way to Washington, D.C. to enlist in the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. The commander, who knew the family, contacted Longfellow senior, who unhappily gave his consent to the enlistment. Eventually, Charles was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. In June, Charles contracted typhoid fever and malaria, and his father brought him home to recover. He returned to the army in August, having missed the Battle of Gettysburg. In November, he was badly wounded during the Mine Run Campaign, part of the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. A bullet pierced his shoulder and grazed his spine; he was nearly paralyzed and his family worried he wouldn’t survive. (Fortunately, he did survive, went on to become a world traveler.)

It was facing the possibility of another loss that Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells.” The poem gracefully captures Longfellow’s anger about the war, and his sense of hopelessness, but in the end, expresses his faith that in the end, good will can prevail.

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!”

Composer Jean Baptiste Calkin, an English organist, set “Christmas Bells” to music in 1872. With the two verses specifically referencing the war removed, it became a favorite Christmas carol in England and the United States, often called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In 1956, Johnny Marks, composer of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” composed another version that was recorded by Bing Crosby, among others. While most people do not know the carol’s origins, it has remained popular, especially during periods of war, for 150 years.


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