Fun Fact - I Heard the Bells

It seems appropriate at this time of year, (Article written on 12/26/2014), to explore the history of a well known Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The year was 1863, and the Civil War was raging, with no end in sight. Charles Appleton Longfellow, the son of renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, had joined the Union army, despite objections from his father. In November of 1863, Charles was severely wounded at the battle of New Hope Church. He recovered, eventually, but was unable to rejoin the army. As Christmas approached, Henry Longfellow did not know whether his son would survive. Many wounded soldiers of that era did not. To add to his melancholy, he recently lost his wife Frances in an accidental fire. Needless to say, he was not feeling the Christmas spirit.

On Christmas morn, the bells rang out from every church, a symbol of joy and peace, against a backdrop of war and tragedy. Longfellow captured this irony in a poem, Christmas Bells. Perhaps this line captures the sentiment of his poem.

"hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men!"

In Luke chapter 2, an angel appears before the shepherds, and tells them of the birth of Christ. The shepherds were afraid, (wouldn't you be?), but the angel reassures them. "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy." And then, one angel was not enough, for suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly hosts. They were all praising God, and with one voice they said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Nowhere in the Bible do angels sing, they only talk.) This is the "good will to men" that Longfellow references in his poem. This is the Christmas joy that is mocked by hate and drowned by war, as though evil might triumph over Jesus Christ himself. And yet, Longfellow could not end his poem on such a tragic note. His final stanza declares, "The wrong shall fail, the right prevail." Did he really feel that way, or did he spin it to sell to the American public? We'll never know. I honestly hope it was the former.

His poem was published on February 1865, in Our Young Folks. In 1872, the English organist John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music, using a melody that was well known at the time. The resulting Christmas carol has been sung ever since, with popular recordings by Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

The poem is shown below. The Christmas carol has the same lyrics, except for one stanza that was removed. "The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned." This was specific to the Civil War, and would seem rather out of place if sung as part of a Christmas carol today. The poem and the song are, in the words of Ray Bradbury, "immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it is sung."

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."

My son casually asked if I had heard the song before, and of course I had, but he played it form me anyways, and I could hardly recognize it. Some of the words were the same, but the melody was entirely different. He was listening to the version released by Casting Crowns in 2008. I don't usually like radical alterations of Christmas classics, but Casting Crowns has plenty of talent, and their remake is really quite lovely. You might want to have both versions in your Christmas library.

Further Reading

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day