Christmas Bells

cover page of sheet music titled "The Bells" black text on white page
This early 1870s sheet music advertised the arrangement as sung by the English baritone Charles Santley.

Museum Collection (LONG 22974)

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!

After “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Christmas Bells” is probably Longfellow’s best-known poem today. Set to music early on, the poem became part of the Christmas carol canon. The words have been paired with both traditional melodies and new compositions too numerous to list, in styles ranging from sacred to pop. Two tunes are most familiar today: the hymnal version set to “Waltham,” first used in the 1870s, and the popular version written by Johnny Marks in the 1950s and recorded by artists from Bing Crosby to Harry Belafonte to The Carpenters (amongst many others). If you’re familiar with the carol, there’s a good chance reading the first stanza triggers one of those tunes in your head .

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!

The church bells ringing to mark the holiday are the central image of the poem. In the last line of each stanza, the bells speak to the poet of peace and good-will. His choice of meter echoes the “ringing, singing” tones of the bells.

Longfellow used the image of bells in several poems. In the last poem he wrote, “Bells of San Blas,” he calls bells, “the voice of the church,” noting that in hearing, each individual “Lends a meaning to their speech / And the meaning is manifold.” The imagery is open to interpretation – what do you hear in the sound of the bells?

 

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!

These two stanzas, usually left out of the carol version, evoke the context of sorrow in which the poem was written, and the experience of its audience when it was first published in February 1865. The American Civil War was a national tragedy on a staggering scale. Modern scholars estimate that at least 750,000 men died in the four years of war. Many thousands more were wounded and the effects were felt in households far removed from the front lines.

Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells” in 1864.1 However, he had begun finding the phrases to capture his outlook on the war long before sitting down to write this poem. In September 1862, on hearing of the battle at Second Manassas, he reflected in his journal: “Every shell from the cannon’s mouth bursts not only on the battle-field, but in far-away homes, North or South, carrying Dismay and death. What an infernal thing war is!”

 
Bottom right corner of image shows a Civil War uniform jacket in navy blue wool. Two holes - entry and exit points – are below the shoulder blades. Top left corner of image shows an inset journal entry, dated Friday, November 27, 1863
Charley Longfellow's uniform bears the marks of the mine ball that passed across his back.
His journal entry reads: "Started early in the morning marched to New Hope Church had a fight with the reb. Cav. and infantry I got pluged [sic], was put in the pulpit of N.H. church."

The Civil War touched Longfellow’s family when in March 1863 his oldest son Charley ran away to join the Union Army. That November, Charley coolly commented in his journal that he “got pluged [sic]” in the Mine Run campaign – actually a severe gunshot wound through his back. Henry Longfellow went to Washington, D.C. and escorted his son home for his long convalescence.

 
Chalk portrait of woman
Fanny Longfellow by Rowse, 1859

Museum Collection

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!"

The trauma of Charley’s injury occurred on top of the pain of the loss of Fanny Longfellow, who died in an accidental fire in July 1861. On the first Christmas day after her death, Longfellow reflected: “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 loss of his wife marked Longfellow for the rest of his life.

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!"

Both the poem and carol end with an uplifting resolution of peace on earth, heard in the ringing of the bells. This message continued to resonate over the next century, particularly in times of national crisis. Longfellow’s granddaughter Erica Thorp, writing home from war-torn France at the close of World War I, consciously or unconsciously echoed the poet’s phrases:

The Happiest of all the Christmases that have ever been known to you, and a heart overflowing with Christmas love and joy!! To have Peace on Earth all over the world and the dawning of a new good will that must endure — Can it really all be true —
We have been so dazed by it here. It is all a dream of church bells which will ring forever in one’s ears…2

In December 1943, during another world war, a letter to the editor in a New Bedford newspaper used the poem as a touchstone for “The Christmas Spirit In a World at War,” opening: “’Peace on earth, good-will to men.’ With the pall of war hanging over the world it seems almost sacrilegious to speak these beautiful words today.”3 Five years later, after the close of World War II’s hostilities and the onset of the Cold War, another newspaper published the poem and a piece on its Civil War context, reflecting, “Just as so many in our time are wondering if ever again we will dwell in a world of concord, Longfellow voiced the doubt and fear of that era…”4

In the modern era, the carol version of Longfellow’s poem has become part of the Christmas carol canon. Recordings by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby remain holiday classics, and modern artists continue to record covers of the song every year. The tension between Longfellow’s despair at the state of the world around him and hope for the future that breaths from this poem rings true to people in every generation – from Longfellow’s to our own.

 
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Ranger Kate reads Longfellow's iconic poem from his Cambridge study.

Explore the Poem

 

Notes

  1. Though some secondary sources state the poem was written in December 1863, most evidence supports a composition date of 1864. The poem was first published in “Our Young Folks” in February 1865 and included in Longfellow’s Household Poems later the same year. While Longfellow did not make journal entries around Christmas day in either 1863 or 1864, it is clear from other entries in December 1863 that he was preoccupied with his son’s convalescence and other demands of business, complaining on December 17, 1863, “With so many interruptions find it impossible to get to work.” In 1940, Longfellow’s grandson Harry Dana replied to a query in the Boston Evening Transcript that “Christmas Bells” was perhaps written on Christmas Day 1864, appearing to cite a manuscript at Harvard.
  2. Erica Thorp to Thorp Family, 25 November 1918. In Erica Thorp deBerry Papers, Correspondence, in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) Family Papers (LONG 27930), Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.
  3. Thophile J. DesRoches, “The Christmas Spirit in a World at War,” Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA. 22 December 1943. In Research Material, Christmas Bells, in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana (1881-1950) Papers, 1774-1972 (bulk dates 1850-1950) (LONG 17314), Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.
  4. F.C.G., “to wish you all A Merry Christmas: Faith of Our Fathers,” Sun, Watertown, MA, 24 December 1948. In Research Material, Christmas Bells, in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana (1881-1950) Papers, 1774-1972 (bulk dates 1850-1950) (LONG 17314), Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

Last updated: December 17, 2020

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