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The Story Of A Favorite Christmas Carol

    “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of our favorite carols that we hear during the holidays. This song is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the story behind it is very interesting.

     In 1860, Longfellow was a very successful poet. Abraham Lincoln was elected as President that year, and many in the country were optimistic about the future of the United States.

    A dark cloud of despair soon fell over America and Longfellow’s personal life. In 1861, The Civil War began on April 12th, and Longfellow lost his wife on July 10th.

    The day before she died, Longfellow’s wife was putting locks of her children’s hair into an envelope and was trying to seal it with hot sealing wax. We’re not sure of how it happened, but her dress caught on fire. Longfellow rushed to help, and threw a rug over her. The rug turned out to be too small for the job. He then used his body to put out the fire, but she was already badly burned. The following morning, she died after requesting a cup of coffee.

    Longfellow’s hands and face were so badly burned by the fire, that he was unable to attend her funeral. He later wrote in his diary, on December 25, 1861, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.”

    Life for Longfellow continued to grow darker. In March of 1863, his oldest son, Charles, walked out of his family’s home. Without telling anyone of his plans, he boarded a 

train and went to Washington D.C., so he could join the Union Army.

Longfellow later found a letter that Charles had left behind. Charles said in his letter, “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 would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

Charles impressed his fellow soldiers and superiors with his skills. On March 27, 1863, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Massachusetts Calvary.

After fighting in the Battle of Chancellorsville, in Virginia (April 30 – May 6, 1863), Charles became ill with typhoid fever, and he was sent home to recover. He later rejoined his unit on August 15, 1863.

On November 27, 1863, Charles was shot during the battle of the Mine River Campaign. The bullet entered through his left shoulder, and exited under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charles was lucky that he was not already paralyzed.

Longfellow received a telegram on December 1, 1863. It said that his son had been severely wounded. Longfellow and a younger brother, Ernest, immediately got on a train. They arrived in Washington D.C. on December 3rd. Charles later arrived by train on December 5th.

    Longfellow was alarmed when he heard the Army 

surgeon tell him that his son’s condition was very serious, and that paralysis might ensue. Three other surgeons gave a more favorable report that evening.

Charles eventually recovered, but his military career was over. 

On December 25th of that year, Longfellow wrote a poem titled “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day”. The poem was written as follows:


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,

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

John B. Caulkin, a famous English composer, set the lyrics to music, in 1872. Steven Curtis Chapman, Johnny Cash, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Jimmie Rogers, and others, have recorded this version.

Johnny Marks, known for his song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, set Longfellow’s poem to music in 1956. This version has been recorded by Bing Crosby, Ed Ames, Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, and many others.

The next time you hear this Christmas carol, take a moment to remember this story. Do that and I think this great song will take on an entirely different meaning.