Christmas Day carol is my own personal favorite. I Heard
the Bells on Christmas Day is unusual in that there is no reference to
the Christ child,
manger, Holy Family, shepherds, Magi, or even the Herald
Angels. Instead, it focuses on the
message of those angels amid the ghastly carnage of war. It was written not by famed Unitarian hymnist Samuel Longfellow,
but by his brother Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, then America’s most honored and adored poet who had
created national epics like The
Courtship of Miles Standish, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline
as well as the school recital pieces The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and
was 56 years old, teaching at Harvard,
and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts
in 1863. He had lost his beloved second
wife, Frances Elizabeth Appleton,
two years earlier in a grizzly accident when her dress caught
on fire. To compound his sorrow
the Civil War was raging. Like many New Englanders he was an ardent opponent of slavery but had also embraced pacifism since the Mexican War. He
was deeply conflicted about the war.
His eldest son, Charles
Appleton Longfellow, had enlisted in the Union Army in March against his father’s wishes and was
commissioned a Lieutenant. Charles was severely wounded in November at the Battle
of New Hope Church in Virginia. The young man’s life hung in the balance.
just before Christmas Longfellow got word that his son would survive. On Christmas morning, hearing the local church
bells ring, the poet sat down and wrote I
Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It
was as much an anguished plea for peace as it was a conventional Christmas piece.
poem was first published in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields of Boston in February 1865 as the war was
entering its bloody final months.
was not set to music until an English
organist, John Baptiste Calkin,
used the poem in a processional
accompanied with a melody he Waltham which he had used for
another hymn in 1848. Although other
settings were used, Calkin’s became for many years the standard and remains the
version most heard in Britain and Commonwealth countries.
published texts of the song two of Longfellow’s verses that most directly
referred to the Civil War are usually omitted making the song more universal.
1952 Christmas music specialist Johnny
Marks departed from his usual novelty
songs for children like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to
create a lovely and reverent new melody for Longfellow’s words which
have become the new standard in the United
States. In 1956 Bing Crosby had a mid-level hit with the song and joked to Marks
“You finally got a decent lyricist.”
notable recordings of the Marks version were made by Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra,
The Carpenters and Burl Ives
whose version we enjoy today.