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

On July 9, 1861, the screams of his wife, Fanny, wakened Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from a nap. Her dress was ablaze. Instantly awake, he tried to smother the flames with a rug. When that didn’t work, he used his body. By the time the fire was out, Fanny’s burns were too severe to survive. She died the next day. Longfellow’s face was burned so badly that he was unable to attend the funeral with his five children.

That wasn’t Henry’s only turmoil as Civil War ravaged the country. In March of 1863, Henry’s oldest son, Charles (Charley) Appleton Longfellow, left his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, bound for the Union army in Washington, DC. The eighteen-year-old didn’t ask his father’s permission to join.

Charley quickly earned the commission of 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

Henry was dining at home when a telegram arrived on December 1, 1863. Charley had been shot in the shoulder in a skirmish in the Mine Run Campaign (Virginia) on November 27th.

Henry and his younger son, Ernest, left immediately for Washington, DC. On December 5th, Charley arrived by train. The first surgeon alarmed Henry with news that the serious wound might bring paralysis. Later that evening, three other surgeons gave him better news—Charley’s recovery might take 6 months.

Grieving for his wife and worried for his son, Henry heard Christmas bells ringing on December 25, 1863. He picked up his pen  and wrote “Christmas Bells.”

Two stanzas from this poem written while our country was at war are rarely heard. These speak of the suffering in a nation divided:

        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!

Families had been separated by war—some forever. Anguish overcomes Henry:

      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!”

Faith and hope reach through the anguish in his soul as he continues to listen to the Christmas bells:

     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.”

Charley survived yet his wound ended the war for him.

In February of 1865, Our Young Folks published Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Christmas Bells.” John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music in 1872, and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” became a beloved Christmas carol.

-Sandra Merville Hart

Sources

Ullman, Jr., Douglas. “A Christmas Carol’s Civil War Origin,” American Battlefield Trust, 2018/11/02 https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/christmas-bells.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Wikipedia, 2018/11/02, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Heard_the_Bells_on_Christmas_Day.

“The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,’” The Gospel Coalition, 2018/11/02 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/.

 

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