I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY written in 1863
During the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier 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 soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia), during the Mine Run Campaign. Coupled with the recent loss of his wife Frances, who’d died as a result of an accidental fire, Longfellow was inspired to write “Christmas Bells”. It was not until 1872 that the poem is known to have been set to music.
Christmas Day in 1863 was not a day of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” in the United States. The bloody Civil War was being fought. At Gettysburg, only 6 months earlier, 40,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. The long siege in Vicksburg resulted in 30,000 confederate soldiers being taken as prisoners. And there was no end in sight.
No wonder the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “bowed his head” in despair and said, “There is no peace on earth.” The whole country, both North and South, was bowed in despair. But there was something about Christmas that helped Longfellow see beyond the brutality and the carnage of his present day and realize God is not dead… and that right would prevail.
The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men.
The birth of Jesus Christ brings hope. Christmas doesn’t mean that all of our problems disappear, but it does assure you and me that God is not dead, nor does He sleep.
Read this Christmas song, and – today – hold on to the hope that started at 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 th’ 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.”