I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY, By Kevin Diehl
No other holiday on the Christian calendar has as much music connected to it as Christmas. Everywhere we go during the holiday season the music follows. It’s difficult to imagine Christmas without the music.
Of course, the songs that are traditional now were, at some point, brand new. The very first Christmas song likely appeared on the scene sometime during the 4th century. Songs continued to be added by fits and starts over the years, but by the 19th-century reign of Queen Victoria, Christmas carols were firmly entrenched as a part of the season.
Those years gave rise to many of today’s most familiar Christmas songs. Joy to the World, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come All Ye Faithful. These and many others were introduced during the Victorian era.
We’re so accustomed now to the old carols that we hardly give a second thought to how they came to be.
But the story behind some of these songs – the story of the lives and times of the people who wrote them – can often lead to a greater appreciation and understanding for the music that is so integral to Christmas. So it is with a familiar carol that was written by one of America’s most beloved poets – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his darkest hour, Longfellow composed a poem that would later be set to music by John Baptiste Calkin, and in time take its place among the well-known carols of Christmas.
Longfellow was born in Maine in 1807 before it was actually a state. Although it’s somewhat rare for poets, Longfellow gained extraordinary fame and adoration through his long career for writing such poems as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “The Village Blacksmith.”
In 1843, Henry – already a widower – married Frances Appleton, whom everyone called Fanny. The couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lived in the house that had served as General Washington’s headquarters during the siege of Boston. By 1861, Henry’s literary career was flourishing, and so was his family – he and Fanny had six healthy children.
But in April 1861, their idyllic life, and the serenity of the nation, was abruptly disturbed by the opening shots of the Civil War. Although Longfellow was an abolitionist, he opposed the war. But with the fighting well to the south, the grim realities of battle seemed somewhat abstract. Nevertheless, tragedy would find its way into the Longfellow home.
In the sweltering summer of 1861, Fanny, looking for ways to help keep her children cool, decided to trim the long curls of her daughters’ hair. Wishing to preserve the clippings, Fanny was melting sealing wax on envelopes with a candle when the long folds of her dress caught fire.
With her dress ablaze, she ran into Henry’s study. He desperately tried to smother the flames with a small rug and his own body; for his efforts, Henry was badly burned on his face, arms and hands. Fanny suffered much worse; she died the next morning. Bedridden with his own burns, Henry was unable to attend her funeral.
Longfellow was despondent after Fanny’s death. Enduring that first Christmas without his wife, Henry captured in his journal the sentiments so many have felt through the ages: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays! But the dear little girls had their Christmas tree last night; and an unseen presence blessed the scene.” The next Christmas he was much the same, remarking, “‘A merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more, for me.”
The sadness, though, would only deepen. By 1863, with the Northern forces losing most battles, it appeared there was no end in sight for the war. Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles, had enlisted in the Union Army against his father’s wishes. After Charles left home, Henry received a letter from his son that said, “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.” He nearly did.
In early December 1863, Henry received word that the young lieutenant had been severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Although Charles would ultimately survive, his recovery at that time was anything but certain.
Longfellow greeted Christmas 1863 downhearted. He’d lost his wife, his son was severely wounded, and his beloved country continued making war on itself. As the story goes, the bells that Henry heard ringing through the town that Christmas inspired him to write the poem that would eventually become the carol we all know as, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
With Henry’s personal tragedy and the destructive war as a backdrop, the words to the carol take on new life. The first two verses, probably the ones we most recognize, begin brightly enough, as Longfellow tells us: “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.
“I 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.”
But the third verse takes on a distinctly darker tone, reflecting his despondent mood: “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.’” With the grisly, fratricidal war still raging, the bells – it seemed to Henry – made the very notion of peace a cruel dream.
But Longfellow, even in his despair, held onto faith and saw reason for hope in his last two verses: “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.’
“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.”
When Longfellow wrote those words, he had no way of knowing the war would soon end, and a better day would dawn for America. When news of General Lee’s surrender reach Longfellow, he wrote in his journal, “So ends the Rebellion of the slave-owners.”
Just as the years of the Civil War cast an all-consuming darkness over Longfellow, it’s easy for us to slip into despair. The opening decades of the 21st century have been unquestionably difficult. The century began with a massive terrorist attack on our soil that led to a decades-long war against an elusive enemy capped off by a long, deadly pandemic. Viewed through that lens, things seem pretty bleak. And, just as with Longfellow, it’s difficult for us to see any reprieve from this darkness.
But Longfellow’s carol reminds us that, just as he did then, we must now have faith and hold onto the hope that, “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
Merry Christmas everyone.