This is part 5 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
As Christmas carols go, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a bit of a strange song. When we think of Christmas carols we often think joy and happiness. We think of celebration. We have to sing for a while before we find any of sign, anything that even resembles those emotions.
When one reads the words of the third verse alone, one does not in any way feel the old “Christmas spirit” in the words of the carol. Listen to these words as you read: “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.'” In a Christmas carol we read lines like “…no peace on earth…” and “hate is strong and mocks the song…” I doubt seriously we will ever find these words on a Hallmark Christmas card. The words are even difficult to read.
The great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, put together the words to this Christmas carol that is so much the opposite of what we think of as a Christmas carol. Born in 1807, a college graduate and college professor by 1826. In 1831 Longfellow married. In 1834 he was riding high, on top of his career when his wife became ill and died. Seven years later Longfellow remarried and the couple had five children and by 1860 Longfellow had reached the heights of his profession and obtained worldwide notoriety, fame and fortune. He was arguably the greatest writer the “New World” had produced to date.
Tragedy struck again as Longfellow’s wife, while lighting a match to then light a candle, set her clothes on fire and she burned to death. Making Longfellow a widower now for the second time. As Longfellow went through the grieving process, the Civil War began. Longfellow hated the Civil War. His oldest son Charles was wounded in the war and sent home to recover and Longfellow acted as his nurse. As he was nursing Charles back to health Longfellow continued to see the very real repercussions of the war, the dead and wounded. It is said he asked his friends and prayed to God, “Where is the peace.”
Consensus is, it was probably the church bells on Christmas morning 1863 that inspired Longfellow’s writing as he attempted to answer his own question, “Where is the peace.” That seems fairly obvious with the tone of the first two verses.
Originally (Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” not as a carol but as a poem), there were seven verses. The two below, having specifically to do with the Civil War were dropped. Additionally, what is now the final verse in many printed versions of the song (including the above) was originally the third stanza of the Longfellow poem. The two stanza below, again don’t sound a lot like Christmas.
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!
With the exception of the deletion of these two verses, the hymn is the same as when first published.
Ten years later, an Englishman, John Baptiste Calkin put Longfellow’s sorrowful turned faithful poem to music. The Englishman bringing the American’s words to music turned the, now carol, into a favorite both in Europe and the United States. It’s grim, yet faithful message has brought comfort to people all over the world during times of war since.
What speaks of great tragedy also turns to great faith. I love the line, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth good will to men.”
Have a blessed day in the Lord,
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.