The Story Behind the Song: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”


Here’s the story behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written as a read-aloud for your classroom.

By Lori Ann Watson

Christmas music touches hearts and brings people together. What we often don’t realize, though, is that nearly every song is rooted in an experience. The inspiration comes from the songwriter’s life, and it’s the trials and difficulties that often give rise to the most famous songs.

Print out this story for an easy classroom read-aloud!

Henry was shaken from his work when his wife ran into his study, screaming. Her dress was enveloped in flames. The fiery plumes shot above her head, singeing the face he loved most.

He grabbed a heavy rug from the floor and smothered the flames with it and then with his own body. Eventually, the fire was out, but it was too late. Henry and his wife, Fanny, were both badly burned. For Fanny, the burns would prove fatal. She died the next day, on July 11, 1861, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was left a widower.

At the time, Longfellow was one of the most famous poets in the world. (In fact, in her diary, Queen Victoria later wrote about what a commotion Longfellow’s appearance at Windsor Castle caused among her servants!) Henry and his wife had spent 18 very happy years together, and they were raising five children. Fanny’s death was a shock, to say the least.

The years that followed brought Longfellow depression and loneliness. The fact that Americans were killing each other in the Civil War didn’t help. To make matters worse, during the height of the war, Henry’s and Fanny’s only living son, Charles, snuck away and joined the Union army against his father’s wishes. After joining the military, he wrote home to tell his dad he had become a soldier.

On December 1, 1863, Henry received a telegram saying that his son had been badly wounded. A Confederate bullet had torn in through one of Charles’ shoulders, grazed his spine, and then exited through the other shoulder. Longfellow immediately boarded a train and headed to Washington to help tend the wounds.

But God has a way of bringing good out of even the most painful events in life. On Christmas Day that year, prompted by his own heaviness of heart, Longfellow penned these words:

Christmas Bells

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!

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!”

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!”

In writing this poem, Henry began with despair, but then nudged his own heart—and the hearts of his readers—out of that despair and toward hope. Years later, in 1872, John Baptiste Calkin set Henry’s poem to music and created a popular Christmas song that reminds us, even today, that there is always hope, no matter what turmoil surrounds us. Since then, Longfellow’s words have been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Casting Crowns.

Longfellow endured great tragedy in life, but “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a song of hope, of faith, and of trust. Over a century and a half after the words were originally penned, it still serves as a reminder that God really does make all things work together for good.

Lori Ann Watson teaches, homeschools, blogs about Catholicism, and almost never gets caught up on laundry. She writes from North Central Florida.

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