Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Church bells

The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied.

His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he had made peace with Christmas, but as a protest against slavery and the war.

Longfellow’s tragedies and poem

After Longfellow’s wife trimmed some off their seven-year-old daughter’s curls on July 10, 1861, she decided to preserve them in wax. She failed to notice that some of the wax had fallen on her dress, which caught fire.

Henry first tried to put it out with a rug. It was too small, so he threw his arms around her. She died the next day, and he had suffered such severe burns to his face, arms, and hands that he couldn’t even attend her funeral. He grew his beard because it was too painful to shave.

Christmas of that year, he wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” On the anniversary of the tragedy he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

On Christmas 1862 he wrote, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” He made no journal entry at all on Christmas 1863—perhaps because his son, a lieutenant in the Union army, had recently taken a bullet that severely injured his spine. The Battle of Gettysburg, which claimed 40,000 lives, had also taken place that year.

By Christmas 1864, the future, at least for the nation, seemed a little brighter. Abraham Lincoln had been re-elected as President and the Union army clearly had the upper hand. Inspired by the sound of church bells, he wrote his poem.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”

Longfellow published “Christmas Bells” in 1867 in a collection called Flower-de-Luce. 

The music

English organist John B. Calkin had published a tune, known as “Waltham” in 1848 and paired it with the American hymn text “Fling Out the Banner, Let It Float,” a militant missionary hymn. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” as a beloved carol resumes in 1872; some unknown person decided to pair Longfellow’s poem (minus the 4th and 5th verses) with Calkin’s gentle and pensive tune. It immediately became popular.

To this day, most hymnals use Calkin’s tune for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” but some have used music by John Bishop (ca. 1665-1737), Joseph Mainzer (1801-1851), or Alfred Herbert Brewer (1865-1928).

Calkin’s tune / Lomax Chorus, South Pacific Symphony:

Pop-song writer Johnny Marks composed a new setting of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in 1956, and recordings by Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Kate Smith among many other pop singers abound on YouTube. I don’t know of any pop singers who have recorded any other tune.

Marks, along with Irving Berlin and Mel Torme, is among the Jewish songwriters has enriched American celebrations of Christmas with their music. His setting of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of more than a dozen Christmas songs he composed between 1948 (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and 1969. Others include “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “A Holly, Jolly Christmas.”

Marks’ tune / Frank Sinatra:

Most recently, in 2008, Casting Crowns issued a rock version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” taking liberties with Longfellow’s words. It has since become so popular with church choirs that there are many more versions of it on YouTube than of the traditional tune by Calkins. In hunting for that one, I encountered videos of at least two other tunes that I didn’t recognize. This video of the Casting Crowns version features not only a choir, but the church’s signing team–a truly spectacular visual experience.

Casting Crowns’ tune / Essex Alliance Church (Essex Junction, VT) choir and signing team:

Photo credit: Pixabay


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