I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a Christmas carol based on the 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Written during the Civil War it tells of the narrator hearing Christmas bells but despairing that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”. However, the song evolves until, in the end, it concludes with the bells ringing out even louder with the remainder that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” and “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail” and that that there will ultimately be “peace on earth, good will to men”.

Longfellow’s beloved wife had died two years earlier when, as she was sealing envelopes with hot wax, a flame caught her clothes on fire. Henry had rushed to her aid and tried to smother the flames, but by the time the fire was out, Frances had been burned beyond recovery. Badly burned himself, her death marked a turning point in Longfellow’s life. He began writing less and his physical appearance changed dramatically as he began growing his beard because the burns disfigured his face. Mentally, he sank into depression and, after his son was badly wounded in the Civil War not long before he wrote the poem, his despondency increased. He was inspired to write this poem after hearing Christmas bells reminding him of the promise of peace on earth made by God through the angels in Luke. In his grief and despair it seemed that the seeming injustice and violence he observed in the world mocked the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook of peace. However, in the end he realized that God is not dead nor indifferent to injustice and suffering and did come to bring peace and good will which will ultimately be realized.

The poem was first published in 1865 in a juvenile magazine and there are many references to the Civil War which are not commonly sung today. It was not until 1872 that the poem is known to have been set to music by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin. Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1956 and it proved to be very popular reaching No. 55 in the Music Vendor survey. It has since been recorded dozens of times with sales exceeding 5 million copies including by the Christian music group “Casting Crowns” which had a number one hit with it on the Christian charts.

It is good to remember at this season that despite all of the injustice and wickedness we see around us Christ did come to bring peace and good will to men (with whom he is pleased – often left out). For those who “please” God by accepting Christ as Savior there will be eternal peace and happiness one day and this song reminds us of that. For both those that accept and those that reject Christ there will be justice. The wrong will fail and the right will prevail.

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