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The History of the Song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

by Adapted by Sandra Naugle

Information found in Wikipedia

Luke 2:14 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.  King James Version

     "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is a Christmas carol based on the 1863 poem "Christmas Bells" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The song tells of the narrator hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, but despairing that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men". After much anguish and despondency the carol concludes with the bells ringing out with resolution that "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep" and that there will ultimately be  "..peace on earth, good will to men".

     In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army without his father's blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. "I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer", he wrote. "I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good." Charles was soon appointed as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.

     Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863. "Christmas Bells" was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields. References to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. The refrain "peace on Earth, goodwill to men" is a reference to the King James Version of Luke 2:14.

     It was not until 1872 that the poem is known to have been set to music. The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody "Waltham" that he previously used as early as 1848. The Calkin version of the carol was long the standard. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to Joseph Mainzer's 1845 composition "Mainzer". Other melodies have been composed more recently, most notably in 1956 by Johnny Marks (arranged by Lee Kjelson and Margaret Shelley Vance).

     Bing Crosby recorded the song on October 3, 1956, using Marks's melody and verses 1, 2, 6, 7. It was released as a single and reached No. 55 in the Music Vendor survey. The record was praised by both Billboard and Variety. "Bing Crosby's workover of 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' looks like a big one for the '56 Yule and a hit potential of enduring value." At deadline time, not many of this year's Christmas issues had shown much action. This new Crosby record, however, was off to a promising start. As fast as it is catching on early in the month, it is easy to project the impressive volume it will rack up the last half of December. Marks's tune has since received more than 60 commercial recordings, with total sales exceeding 5 million copies.

The following is the full poem, with all verses, as Longfellow wrote it.

     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."

Adapted by Sandra Naugle for use in the December Word & Work.




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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33