As I fan of Christmas music, I try to seek out less popular songs that might not make the playlist of those 24/7 holiday radio stations.
One such song is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
It just so happens that this tune was actually a poem by the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And, coincidentally, a new movie was released this month called “I Heard the Bells” which details the poem’s background.
Longfellow had six children and suffered a terrible tragedy in 1861 when his wife died in a house fire. In 1863, his eldest son wanted to fight in the Civil War so he joined the Union army.
A telegram delivered to Longfellow in early December informed the father that his son was seriously wounded and may be paralyzed.
Imagine how much anguish Longfellow must have felt, losing his wife in 1861 and possibly losing his son two years later. That Christmas day he found the courage to write “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a testament to people seeking light when everywhere around one is darkness.
The poem has seven stanzas, each one ending with the refrain “peace on earth, good-will to men.” That repetition emphasizes how people must believe that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” In extolling readers to believe that all will turn out all right regarding the Civil War, he was also convincing himself to disavow any doubts about goodness in the world despite his personal life.
Parts of the poem are deleted from the song version due to its direct reference to the 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’s a shame this is not part of the song because it further explains the speaker’s cynicism that leads to the following stanza:
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!”
Finally, in the last stanza, it seems as if by magic the tone shifts from despair to faith:
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.”
Pealing the bells louder and deeper symbolizes making one’s faith louder and deeper. One would never think of inferring in a Christmas song that God is dead, but Longfellow does: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” The speaker proclaims with the pealing of the bells that “the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
In 1863, the United States was broken into the blue and gray armies with many families suffering Christmases without loved ones. However, America’s civil war would end 16 months later. And the country would continue to grow. And Longfellow’s son would fully recover.
While the song was put to music in 1872, it wasn’t until songwriter Johnny Marks—known for his Christmas classics such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”—came up with a melody in 1956 that has since become the quintessential version most often recorded in modern times.
In Bing Crosby’s recording, which begins with a chorus singing part of “Joy to the World,” the ringing of bells is heard throughout.
Harry Belafonte’s 1958 reverential recording has minimum instrumentation with a slow, quiet tempo of “Silent Night.”
However, it is Frank Sinatra’s 1964 version, recorded 101 years after Longfellow wrote the poem, that matches the intensity of Longfellow’s words. That’s because Sinatra’s long-time collaborator, Nelson Riddle, wrote the arrangement like a mini-movie.
Backed by a chorus, the somber tone and timbre of Sinatra’s reading lends an appropriate funereal atmosphere. As the song proceeds, the power of the orchestra’s volume increases, addng depth to the poem’s meaning in a mere two minutes and thirty-seven seconds.
As the years pass, the world continues to turn despite more conflicts. Today, America is broken into the blue and red states. One glance at headlines seems to tell a story of warring not peace on earth.
However, there remains hope that peace on earth could one day be attained as long as mankind keeps pealing those bells “more loud and deep.”