The Story Behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” probably isn’t in your Top Ten Christmas carols. As a piano teacher, I can attest to the fact that hardly a single child today has ever heard of it. If you’re among the few who has, you may know it with either this melody (here, sung by Burl Ives. Interesting side note — I noticed this week that this melody plays during the opening to the Christmas “Rudolph” special, which also features Ives) — or this one (which was the one I learned to play on piano as a child).

Editing to add that my mom and cousin let me know of another version of the melody, this time by the group Casting Crowns. Very pretty as well!

But no matter the melody, the words were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, as is often the case with hymns, there’s an interesting tale behind how these lyrics came to be. First, enjoy them:

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.

I 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.

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.”

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!

Most of us know Longfellow as a famous poet. But he experienced some tragic life events. In 1861, his beloved wife Fanny was cutting their 7-year-old daughter, Edith’s, hair. She wanted to save the locks, but while melting sealing wax to close the envelope, she ignited her own clothing. Henry tried extinguishing the flames, and in the act severely burned his own arms, face, and hands. It was all to no avail, as Fanny died from her burns the next day. The familiar photos of an older Longfellow all feature beards — grown to hide the scarring from this incident.

A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me, he wrote in his 1862 journal.

Longfellow’s troubles were not over. The Civil War was waging, and his oldest son Charles (“Charlie”) enlisted in the Union army, against his father’s wishes. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good,” the 17-year-old wrote.

Within months, Charlie contracted typhoid and was sent home to recover. Joining again, he was hit in the shoulder and back while fighting in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. Barely missing being paralyzed, the war was over for Charlie. His father wrote the words to the now-famous carol as he helped his son recover.

He also wrote two additional verses which are not sung anymore, but their allusion to the Civil War is clear:

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!

12 thoughts on “The Story Behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

  1. I know this song very well, as it is one I listen to every year on an old Christmas album I have. Thanks for giving us the background on the lyrics. I always liked the reminder that peace and goodwill can be found even in the worst of circumstances.

  2. I always loved singing this in my youth at church! It was in our hymn book back then. Thanks for researching the story behind this song. Very Interesting!

  3. This is one of my favorite Christmas Carols! Our choir sang it December 7, 2014. We had a third melody. Please google and listen to it. It is beautiful! The music and words are by Bernie Herms, Mark Hall, and Dale Oliver. Let me know what you think of this rendition. I feel sure you’ll LOVE it! I do!

  4. The words of the third stanza sound as if they were written in 2014. It’s good to be reminded that our world has been in a mess before. Sometimes we tend to become very myopic.

  5. I’ve always loved this song, but I didn’t know the story behind it. It will be even more meaningful now, and would be anyway, really, considering the events in the world.

  6. What an interesting history — you’re right that most people these days (including myself) have never heard of this carol so thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  7. Thank you for sharing this amazing story. This really is one of the forgotten carols. What powerful lyrics! Our God isn’t dead. I may have to bring this song to our worship leader’s attention. We usually stick to joy to the world and other popular Christmas songs.

  8. Thanks for the background on this beautiful song. I remember it from many years ago but have not heard it in a very long time. After reading all the lyrics, I will find it and listen again!!

  9. It saddens me to read the words of the last two stanzas. How terrible the Civil War must have been!

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