The Ringing of the Christmas Bells

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”—Luke 2:14.

by Zoltan James

It’s Christmas Day 1864 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The man who paces his library looks old, with his white flowing beard, but, he’s only 57.  The library of his home, which also serves as his study, is where for the past many years of his life he’s penned famous poems and entertained and befriended U. S. senators, Harvard professors, foreign dignitaries and literary stars of his day.

But, today he does not feel the joy of Christmastime.  He broods about the Civil War and hopes the news of its near end may be reliable.  He’s thankful that Abraham Lincoln has been reelected President, but the ongoing war has left a terrible emotional toll on the nation.  For it was only six months ago, that 51,000 men died during the three-day battle of Gettysburg.

As he stands at his window looking across the marshes and beyond to the cold Charles River, he frets about his oldest son, Charles, who is thankfully alive and home.  Unfortunately, he’s crippled in his spine from a bullet he caught in his shoulder blades while fighting as a Union lieutenant at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia.  His health is delicate.

And, yet, on this most joyous day in which the nation celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the man can not bring himself to feign a smile.  He still deeply mourns the loss of his beloved wife, Fanny.  He gazes at her photo in the round frame that hangs above his desk, and he recalls how in this same room, only three-and-a-half years ago, on a hot July afternoon, she ran screaming to him.  He still shrinks at the thought of her fearful cry and the god awful sight she presented.  She was wrapped in flames.  Her dress, hair, face and arms were all ablaze. He tried valiantly to extinguish the damned inferno with a throw rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around her and hugged her with his body, but it was to no avail.  And, then the fire jumped and severely burned his face and hands.  His sweet friend and love of his life, who bore him five children, died the next day.  The man was so shaken by grief and pained by his own burns that he couldn’t leave his house to attend her funeral.

He later learned from his seven-year-old daughter, Edith, how her mother was trimming Edith’s curls and preserving them in sealing wax.  But hot droppings fell on her mother’s dress and a breeze gusted through the window igniting the thin fabric.

The memory caused him to slump into his chair.  He turned to his diary and recalled the agony of loss and emptiness he had felt that Christmas Day in 1861 following her death, when he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.”  And, on the anniversary of the accident, he added these words: “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

Understandably, a year later, he still mourned.  Meanwhile, news of war dead mounted and in his diary that December, the man wrote, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.”  He bowed his head and fought back the tears.

Then something magical happened that would forever change him.  His remaining children ran into his study.  “Father, did you hear that?” his beautiful daughter, Edith, said.

He looked up in surprise.  “What?”

“The church bells,” they almost giggled in unison.  “They’re ringing for Christmas!”

And, indeed they were.  Churches throughout Cambridge were ringing their bells heralding Christmas Day.  The harmonics of the pealing bells sounded symphonic.

“Merry Christmas, Father,” his children said, and they ran to hug him.

He held them as tight as he had held his wife when she was engulfed in flames, but it wasn’t the cry of fear he heard.  Today, he heard peals of laughter and joy.  And, he heard the bells, the ringing, resounding exultation of Christmas.

And, so it was in that magical moment that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began to write

“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!”

This poem would later become one of our country’s most beloved Christmas carols, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

This carol has resonated with me since I first heard it sung as a youngster while attending the Lone Star Church of the Brethren near Lawrence, Kansas.  To this day, I can picture the tight-knit community of farmers and their families standing in their pews singing loud and strong, while Thelma Flory, the organist, literally pulled out all the stops and let the bass chords loose full throttle.

And, when many years later I discovered that Longfellow wrote the original poem, it began for me a lifelong love of his works.  The carol’s biblical foundation, lyricism and anti-war message ring true for me yet today.  More importantly, I believe its powerful message continues to give hope over despair as it did for Longfellow when he first penned his words during one of the darkest periods in American history and in his personal life.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow’s original poem was titled Christmas Bells and it was published in February 1865 in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine. But it wasn’t until 1872 that it was set to music. The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody he previously played as early as 1848.

Elvis Presley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and others have recorded the carol using the Calkin version. The poem has also been set to the 1845 composition “Mainzer” by Joseph Mainzer.

In the 1950s, composer Johnny Marks, famous for his song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, transcribed Longfellow’s poem to music. Marks’ version has been recorded by numerous artists and is generally accepted as the de facto version. However, a new and haunting version was written and performed by Casting Crowns, an award-winning Christian rock band.

Author’s note:  For a stirring rendition of the Calkin version, see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform on video at the end of this article.  And, for the new and haunting version, don’t miss Casting Crowns’ video performance below.

By the time Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote Christmas Bells, he was already considered America’s most beloved poet of the day.  He had retired from teaching literature at Harvard College and had already penned The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, The Wreck of the Hesperus, and The Village Blacksmith.

His poems were full of optimism and faith and he wrote effortless rhymes and tender lyrics.  He interlaced his poetry with grace and melody, deep symbolism, and a trumpet call to action.  Longfellow also captured common themes we can relate to such as the fight for independence, landscapes, death and sorrow, and the ravages of war, all the while weaving Scripture into his patterns. In short, he wrote simply and sincerely.

Horace Scudder, a critic of American verse at that time, said, “…the reader is always aware of Longfellow’s presence, wise, calm, reflective, musing over the large thoughts of life and art.”

Longfellow lived in “Craigie House” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which, at the time, was considered to be one of the finest residences in the area. Interestingly, the house has its own rich history.  It was once General George Washington’s headquarters after he took command of the Continental Army in 1775.  At that time, Washington chose the southeast chamber, where Longfellow would later live and work.  And, in 1840, Longfellow was the first American to have plumbing installed in that house.  The house became a National Historic Site in 1972.

Craigie House

He married Frances Appleton on July 13, 1843.  Fanny was a daughter of one of the wealthiest merchant-bankers of Boston, and it was his father-in-law who gave them the house as a wedding present.

Cambridge, in Longfellow’s day, was a center of theology and religion, still rural in nature but comprised of a collection of churches, factories, retail shops, inns and printing establishments.  The Harvard campus already had its famous “quad.”  His contemporaries were Browning, Darwin, Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickens, Poe, Irving, Lowell and Tennyson.

The writing of Christmas Bells marked the beginning of a healing process for Longfellow, but he never fully recovered physically or mentally from his wife’s death. Pain plagued him the rest of his life and he was forced to seek relief with ether and laudanum. As he grew older, he feared encroaching insanity and begged his children not to abandon him to a mental hospital.  Longfellow continued to live and write in his house until he died of pneumonia in March, 1882.  An unfinished poem, Michael Angelo was found in his desk after his death.

We owe a debt of gratitude to those magical ringing bells on that Christmas Day.  For it was the bells that triggered something deep within his soul and allowed him a way to express his grief.  His gift to mankind is an enduring Christmas poem and carol that still rings loud with the hope that peace and goodwill can still be ours.

Christmas Bells

The original poem, complete with all seven stanzas.  The fourth and fifth stanzas, which refer to the Civil War, were omitted when the poem was turned into the carol.

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!

Wishing you and your loved ones a blessed Christmas and a joyous New Year!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Ringing of the Christmas Bells

  1. Alex Benko

    A most intriguing story with a message we so badly need today.

    Thank you for stepping forward with such words of wisdom!

  2. Cheryl

    Amazing story, from a gifted writer about one of my favorite American poets. This has made my Christmas. Thanks for sharing. I am forwarding it to all my family. Given that I am writing stories about the Civil War and Homefront, this is especially significant.

    Hope you and Marta have a wonderful Christmas.

  3. Very enlightening and a good read. I’m not a history buff and not very well read. Thanks for shareing Henry with me, keep up the nice work.

  4. Erik

    Nicely done Zoltan James. Longfellow’s poem is also one of my favorites. The first time I can remember the poem was in a version sung by Harry Belafonte on his Christmas album that came out in 1961.

    Thank you so much for sharing…

    Erik

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