I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 December 24, 2017|
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has become a holiday standard. It’s been sung by Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and Burl Ives to name only a few. The problem is, it’s not a Christmas carol.

The song is a musical adaptation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Christmas Bells.” The poem is beautiful, haunting, and dissonant. It is full of a mournful reverence that can leave the reader breathless.

Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day, 1863. The country that he loved was being ripped apart by the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest three days in American history, had taken place only six months prior. Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg Address just a month earlier. On top of this, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, had recently died tragically in a fire and his oldest son, Charles, had been badly wounded November 27. As he wrote to a friend, “I have been through a great deal of trouble and anxiety.” The result was one of his most intimate poems.

Still, this wonderful poem is not about Christmas. It does not point to the incarnation or the imminent propitiatory sacrifice for sin that makes Christmas joyful. It is a requiem for a sundered nation, a lost wife, and a wounded son. But even so, it concludes with a note of hope. Longfellow’s wife was gone, but his son recovered, and eventually, the war ended and the union was restored.

In spite of its title, Christmas Day is better read on July 4 than on December 25. It’s personal, powerful, and profoundly American. So next summer when you’re thinking about the Founding, try and remember Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells.”

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.”

About the Author:

Chris Buskirk
Chris is the Publisher and Editor of American Greatness and the host of The Seth & Chris Show. He was a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute. and received a Fellowship from the Earhart Foundation. Chris is a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold businesses in financial services and digital marketing. He is a frequent guest on NPR's Morning Edition. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Hill, and elsewhere. Connect with Chris on Twitter at @TheChrisBuskirk
Loading...

10 Comments

  1. Don Anastas √ #WAR December 24, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Merry Christmas fellow Patriots! MAGA!!

    • Erika December 25, 2017 at 2:19 am

      Google is paying 97$ per hour,with weekly payouts.You can also avail this.
      On tuesday I got a brand new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $11752 this last four weeks..with-out any doubt it’s the most-comfortable job I have ever done .. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
      !gi140d:
      ➽➽
      ➽➽;➽➽ http://GoogleLegitimateDevelopmentJobsFromHomeJobs/get/hourly ★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫:::::!gi140lhhhh

    • Christina December 26, 2017 at 4:54 am

      Google is paying 97$ per hour,with weekly payouts.You can also avail this.
      On tuesday I got a great New Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $11752 this last four weeks..with-out any doubt it’s the most-comfortable job I have ever done .. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
      !da142d:
      ➽➽
      ➽➽;➽➽ http://GoogleTeamGalleryUpdateWorkFromHome/more/cash ★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫:::::!da142luu

    • Jnpoet December 27, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      Dude. Christmas isn’t about patriotism or country. It’s about spiritualism, specifically, Christianity.

  2. Michele Bregande December 26, 2017 at 5:23 am

    Poignant and, sadly, always relevant. And gotta love June Carter and Johnny Cash in 1977! Really wonderful when they look into each other’s eyes and he speaks the stanza “And in despair I bowed my head …”

  3. Bo Grimes December 26, 2017 at 7:36 am

    Good background, but to argue it’s not a Christmas Carol is silly and misses the forest for the trees. I used to listen to this carol on my dad’s reel-to-reel while laying under the Christmas tree looking up at the lights, and the angel on top imagining it was one of those who proclaimed to the shepherds” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

    Years later, when I read the poem, the fact that I had heard it as a Christmas carol made its message all the more resonate in Christian hope and longing, and it has helped me as an adult to practice watching and waiting during Advent, not just for the Incarnation but the Parousia as well.

    The poem reads like a modern Psalm, especially Psalm 73.

    Is there really peace on Earth? Aseph (and Longfellow) wonder.

    1 Truly God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.
    2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
    my steps had nearly slipped.

    21 When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
    22 I was brutish and ignorant;
    I was like a beast toward you.

    But then I remember Christmas

    16 But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
    17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I discerned their end.

    The poem also fits with the Christmas proclamation:

    Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
    unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
    and then formed man and woman in his own image.

    Several thousand years after the flood,
    when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

    Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
    thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

    Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
    one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
    in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

    In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
    the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.

    The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
    the whole world being at peace,
    Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
    desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
    being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
    and nine months having passed since his conception,
    was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.

    Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

    It’s very much a Christmas carol, Chris, unless you want to be like the Left and focus on this world and the history of man alone without reference to our telos.

    • Leslie December 28, 2017 at 2:26 am

      Google is paying 97$ per hour,with weekly payouts.You can also avail this.
      On tuesday I got a brand new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $11752 this last four weeks..with-out any doubt it’s the most-comfortable job I have ever done .. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
      !ga190d:
      ➽➽
      ➽➽;➽➽ http://GoogleLegitimateSaleJobsFromHomeJobs/get/hourly ★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫★★✫★✫:::::!ga190lhhhh

  4. CunningStunt December 27, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Good background, but to argue it’s not a Christmas Carol is silly and misses the forest for the trees. I used to listen to this carol on my dad’s reel-to-reel while laying under the Christmas tree looking up at the lights, and the angel on top imagining it was one of those who proclaimed to the shepherds” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men

  5. Catherine Leary December 27, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    Don’t overlook the excellent modern version by Casting Crowns.

  6. gabriel martin December 28, 2017 at 4:35 am

    Don’t overlook the excellent modern version by Casting Crowns.

Comments are closed.