Monday, December 21, 2020

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: The Story Behind the Song

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Christmas Bells
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Image is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. 
Christmas Bells image used under public domain license from Free-Photos via Pixabay.

 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:  The Story Behind the Song

I've been hearing and singing the song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" for many years but until today, I had never heard the history behind the song.  The familiar Christmas song was written as a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Longfellow was no stranger to hard times.  

In 1835, Longfellow lost his first wife, Mary Potter Longfellow, along with the couple's first child.  In 1843, he married his second wife, Francis Elizabeth Appleton (Fanny).  The couple was blessed with six children.  In July 1861, a house fire claimed Fanny's life.  She had been sealing envelopes with hot wax when the flame from the candle caught her dress.  She died of her injuries the next day.  In an attempt to put out the fire, Henry was also seriously burned.  His injuries kept him from attending Fanny's funeral.  After Fanny's death, Longfellow slipped into a state of depression.  Then, in 1862, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army against his father's wishes.  Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run.  He survived his injuries but his career in the Army was over.

During his depression, upon hearing Christmas church bells in 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first wrote the poem called Christmas Bells.  Here are the lyrics.

  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." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day was first published in a magazine in 1865.  It wasn't set to music until 1872.

I hope you enjoy the following version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day as performed by Casting Crowns.

 
 
Knowing the history behind the poem and its author has given me a deeper appreciation for the song.  You can purchase the Casting Crowns version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day here.

Would you like to teach your children more about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?  You might like the following suggestions.

 
 
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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - The Story Behind the Song


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