This article was published originally on December 24, 2019.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

“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 mournful reverence that can leave the reader breathless.

Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 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 on 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 Bells” 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 poem.

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.”

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