From Tragedy to a Christmas Carol: The Story of Longfellow’s "Christmas Bells"

By Jen Simone ’18

In times of intense despair, it can seem impossible to have any hope. All of us get caught up in the tragedies occurring all around us and begin to believe that life is a constant struggle without any good in it. Christmas time, though often a time of mourning for people who have recently lost loved ones, also is a time of restored hope for many.

Christmas carolers may arrive at your door this season offering to sing the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The carol tells of a man who is troubled by the hateful world, but then has hope restored as he is reminded of God’s power. Though two stanzas concerning the Civil War were removed for the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was based on the poem “Christmas Bells” written during the Civil War by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

HenryWLongFellow1868
Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868 with the beard he grew to cover his burn scars. Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

The poem begins with the peacefulness that characterizes Christmas:

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!

Beginning in 1861, the Civil War shook the nation. The lives of Americans were transformed as the tension culminated in a battle at Fort Sumter. Family members and friends were recruited from every state, leaving many families in a constant state of worry. Longfellow was one of these worried parents, for his oldest son Charles Appleton left for D.C. and enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Artillery without notifying his father of his decision. Charles wrote, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer. 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.”

Amidst this all-consuming war, Longfellow was grieving over the death of his beloved wife Fanny who died in 1861. While melting wax to preserve a few locks of her daughter’s hair in an envelope, hot wax fell onto her dress, catching it afire. Longfellow attempted to extinguish the flames with a rug and then his body, but despite his efforts, she died the next morning. Following her death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays” and six months later wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” He worried the extent of his grief would lead to him enter an asylum. The sorrow in his life was drowning out the peace that the carols reflected he should feel. “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.”

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!

On December 1, 1863, Longfellow received a telegram which notified him that his son Charles was shot in the left shoulder in battle during the Mine Run Campaign. The army surgeon informed Longfellow of the severity of the wound and the possibility of paralysis, for the bullet missed Charlie’s spinal cord by a single inch.

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!

With the tragic death of his wife and the wounding of his son in a war of which he did not approve, how could he believe that there was peace on earth? He saw the broken world filled with pain and death and momentarily believed that hate always would outweigh the good in the world, for it seemed to have done so during his recent sorrowful years.

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!”

Yet, Longfellow, a devout Christian, regained hope. Though at the moment his world was filled with grief, his despair was alleviated as he realized that God was alive and his power existed on earth, if not physically then within the hearts of humankind. God was there with him during the war and would reign sovereign in the days to come.

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.”

Charlie survived his wounds, returned home, and was mustered out of the army in 1864. Remember that despite your deepest troubles there is always hope to be found. I wish you a very happy holiday season!


Sources:

Meyer, Don. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The Huffington Post. December 17, 2012. Accessed December 10, 2015.

Taylor,  Justin. “The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.'” The Gospel Coalition. December 21, 2014. Accessed December 10, 2015.

Vogel, Paula, and Daryl Waters. A Civil War Christmas : An American Musical Celebration. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2012.

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