History of a Special Christmas Carol

December 19 2017

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

This popular Christmas carol is based on the 1863 poem "Christmas Bells" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The song tells of the narrator's despair, upon hearing Christmas bells, that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men." The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men. Many regard Longfellow as America's greatest poet. The first Longfellow came to the U.S. from Yorkshire, England, in 1676. Henry was born to a prominent New England Lawyer in 1807. He became a respected scholar and was a college professor at the age of 19.

Wadsworth had many tragedies in his life. His first wife Mary had a miscarriage six months into her pregnancy and died a few weeks later while they were en route to Europe.

It was seven years before he recovered from his loss to remarry. Together they had five children, but again tragedy happened.

On July 11, 1861, his wife Fanny had clipped some long curls from the head of her 7-year-old daughter, Edith. Wanting to save them in an envelope, she placed the curls inside, then melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle to seal the envelope.

Somehow, the thin fabric of her clothing caught fire, and Fanny quickly ran to Longfellow’s nearby study for help. He immediately tried to extinguish the flames with a small rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around Fanny to smother the flames, sustaining serious burns on his own face, arms, and hands. Tragically, his heroic act did not suffice to save his wife. Fanny died the next morning from injuries. Longfellow himself was injured to the point where he was unable to attend the funeral.

Photographs of Longfellow taken or made after the fire usually show him with a full beard, since he was no longer able to shave properly due to the burns and scarring.

The coming of the holiday season in the Longfellow house became a time of grieving for his wife while trying to provide a happy time for the children left at home. It was during Christmas 1862 that he wrote in his journal, “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He had also suffered another disappointment when his oldest son, Charles Appleton “Charley” Longfellow, 17 at the time, quietly left their Cambridge, Mass., home and enlisted in the Union Army much against the wishes of his father. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in his journal.

Later, Charlie was injured. He was hit in the shoulder, and the ricocheting bullet took out portions of several vertebrae. It was reported that he missed being paralyzed by less than one inch. Longfellow traveled to where his injured son was hospitalized and brought him home to Cambridge to recover.

But then, on December 25, 1864, he wrote the words of this poem. Perhaps it was the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, the possible end of the terrible war, or a deep, renewed hope that stirred in his soul which brought us this timeless message.

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!” His original words spoke of “each black accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South” and 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!”

The music to this American poem were written by an Englishman named John Baptiste Calkin.

When published, this combination of British music and American lyrics quickly made “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day one of the most popular carols in both Europe and the United States.”

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