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

On April 12, 1861, the War Between the States began. The Union and the Confederacy were at war with one another, tearing apart families: brother against brother, father against sons, and sometimes husbands against wives.  As is in the cases of war, celebrations such as Christmas can be pushed aside. If anything, there is little for soldiers to celebrate anyway, being out in the cold, trying to stay warm by a fire or hurtling bullets at the enemy.  If a war lasts long enough, hopelessness will set in among the soldiers and citizens alike.

Fast forward from April to July. Fanny Longfellow, the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, had just cut some curls off one of their children’s head. Wanting to preserve these curls, she poured melted wax over them from a lighted candle.  Somehow, the fire from the candle touched the cloth of her dress and she immediately was set ablaze. Protecting her children, she ran to the next room–Henry’s study–where he was taking a nap. Awoken, he grabbed a rug and began beating at the inferno that was his wife, but the flames would not be extinguished. He finally smothered them with his own body, severely burning himself in the process. One day later, July 10, 1861, Fanny succumbed to her burns.  Henry was too burned to attend the funeral of the woman he loved so much for the 18 years they were married.

Two years later, 1863, Charles Longfellow, Henry’s oldest son, enlisted in the Union army without his father’s permission.  He was commissioned as a lieutenant and was in the thick of battle. By December 1, Henry received word that his son was wounded in the Battle of Mine Run (November 27). He was shot through the left shoulder, nicking the spine, before exiting out the right shoulder.  Lt. Longfellow was eventually taken to a hospital in Washington D. C.  Henry actually arrived before his son, but when Charles did arrive an army surgeon told his father that the situation was grave and that his son may be paralyzed or perhaps die.  Later, more-informed surgeons gave him better news; while the injury was serious, his son would live and most likely would not be paralyzed, though it would be a good six months before making a recovery.

Longfellow was in D.C. that Christmas as Charles was recovering. On Christmas morning, he heard the church bells rang and they inspired him to write a poem.  Reading the stanzas, one can feel the struggle that went on within his soul.  It was eventually set to music by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872, but the third and fourth stanzas, being predominately about the War, have been left out of most renditions. Incidentally, Longfellow had an iconic beard. It was not by choice. The flames that killed his wife, burned him so severely that he was no longer able to shave his face.

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.”

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