Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” Is More Relevant Today than Ever

During the winter of 1863, America was embroiled in its most violent and bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. Divided over the ethics and economy of slavery and states’ rights, communities turned against each other, families were torn apart, brother fought against brother.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s life mirrored the turmoil of the country. During the summer of 1861, Longfellow’s wife, Frances, died tragically from injuries sustained when her dress accidentally caught fire. Then in March of 1863, without informing his father, Longfellow’s eldest son Charles left home for Washington D.C. to enlist in the Union army. That November, Charles was gravely injured from a bullet wound to his shoulder and back. He survived, but the near-fatal wound would end his career as a soldier.

Longfellow composed his “Christmas Bells” poem on Christmas day in 1863. As he listened to the peal of bells, he penned his first stanzas that speak of the true spirit of Christmas, of “peace on earth” and “good will to men.”

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!

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!

Longfellow doubted the message of the bells though. How could they sing of good will to men when thousands were violently dying within his beloved country? How could they sing of peace on earth while his own son was a casualty of a tragic war?

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;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

However, Longfellow recognized the hope that exists even during times of desperation and hopelessness. He concluded with the truth that the right will always triumph over the wrong:

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.”

“Christmas Bells” was first set to music as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in 1872 by English organist and composer John Baptiste Calkin. Since then, there have been several renditions, most of them omitting the 4th and 5th stanzas of Longfellow’s original poem that reference the war.

In the century and a half since the Civil War, America has continued to justify division among her citizens. The country may not currently be mired in a war with itself, but politics and differences of opinion have succeeded in creating contempt and conflict among communities and within families. This Christmas, I urge all to listen to the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and embrace his message of “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

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