Songs of Christmas…I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day


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.


Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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