History of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day By Longfellow

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In 1863, the American poet James Wadsworth Longfellow’s son, Charles Applegate Longfellow, joined the Union army without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed in a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles left. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer,” he wrote “I feel it is to be my first duty to do what I can for my country, and I would willingly lay down my life for it would be of any good.”

Charles was soon appointed as a Lieutenant but in November he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was over. Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day 1863 but was first published in February 1865 in “Our Young Folks” magazine by Ticknor and Fields. There are references to the Civil War in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. However, the refrain “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” is a reference to the King James version of Luke 2:14.


I heard the Bells on Christmas Day
their old familiar carols play
and mild and sweet
the words repeat
of peace on earth good will to men!

And though now, as the day had come
the belfries of all Christendom
had rolled along
the unbroken song
of peace on earth, good will to men!

And though the day had come
he 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!

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; “the bells,
for hate is strong
and hate 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 to sleep,
the wrong shall fail
the right prevail,
with peace on earth, good will to men!”

This poem was first set to music in 1872 by the English organist John Baptiste Calkin. Other melodies have been composed more recently most notably in 1956 by Johnny Marks. Bing Crosby recorded the song on October 3, 1956, using Mark’s melody using verses 1, 2, 6, 7 and it was released as a single. Marks tune has since received more than 60,000 commercial recordings with a total sales exceeding 6 million copies. I know that such recording artists such as Andy Williams and the Carpenters have the song on their Christmas albums, and I am sure there are plenty of other singers who have recorded this song on their Christmas albums as well.

In 2008 a contemporary Christian music group, Casting Crows, scored their eighth Number 1 Christian hit with “I Heard the Bells” from their album “Peace on Earth.” In 2022 Sight and Sound films first feature was “I Heard the Bells” as it depicts the events surrounding Longfellow’s writing of the poem. The film is now available on DVD.

I chose to write about this poem because I am a bit of a Civil War buff. I even volunteer at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA which I’ve talked about in a previous blog. This poem by Longfellow is a big part of both American and music history. I’ve known about it because of my devoted interest into the particular subject and I wanted the readers of my blog to learn about it too. It is also not just a great poem, but one that’s been turned into a wonderful piece of music as well!

Thomas Hassell

Thomas is 62 years old and has spent the past few decades involved in autism-related social/support groups among other organizations and has become a well-known self-advocate throughout Pennsylvania. For the past 15 years, he’s led a group called “Spectrum Friends” that helps people with autism come together, listen to guest speakers, make new friends, and go on fun field trips. He’s also won and been nominated for multiple disability/autism advocacy awards for his work within the community. Thomas continues to strive for greatness every day and is looking forward to sharing his life story and amazing experiences through ASDNext blogs!

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