"Christmas Bells" is a poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which provided the lyrics for the modern Christmas carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day".[1] The poem tells of the narrator's despair, upon hearing Christmas bells, that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men", but concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among mankind.

Christmas BellsEdit

Christmas Eve, Bethlehem - Franciscan monks ringing the bells at midnight in the Church of the Nativity Art.IWMART1531

Franciscan monks ringing the bells at minight Christmas Eve, 1917, Church of Nativity, Bethlehem. Photo by James McBey. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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!

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!"

Origin Edit

During the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father's blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. "I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer," he wrote. "I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good".[2] Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded[3] in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia) during the Mine Run Campaign. Coupled with the recent loss of his wife Frances, who died as a result of an accidental fire, Longfellow was inspired to write "Christmas Bells".

He first wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863.[4] "Christmas Bells" was first published in February 1865 in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields.[5]

Musical VersionsEdit

It was not until 1872 that the poem is known to have been set to music. The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody he previously used as early as 1848.[3] The Calkin version of the carol was long the standard. Elvis Presley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, MercyMe, Steven Curtis Chapman, Johnny Cash, and Jimmie Rodgers have recorded this version. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to the 1845 composition "Mainzer" by Joseph Mainzer.

Johnny Marks, known for his song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", set Longfellow’s poem to music in the 1950s. Marks' version has been recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Ed Ames, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Sarah McLachlan, Pedro the Lion, Harry Belafonte, The Carpenters, Rockapella, and Bing Crosby. Marks' composition is now commonly used for modern recordings of the carol, though Calkin's version is still heard as well.(Citation needed)

In 1990, John Gorka recorded his arrangement entitled "Christmas Bells", which uses stanzas 1, 2, 6, and 7 of the poem.

Bryan Duncan recorded "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" on his album Christmas is Jesus (Myrrh Records).

In 2000, the vocal group Rockapella began their album Christmas with an arrangement of the classic carol edition.

In 2002, Greg Gilpin set the words to the tune "Waly, Waly", an American Folk Song, in a sheet-music arrangement that is interesting because of its use of handbells to illustrate the words. It omitted the last verse.

In 2004, Pedro the Lion recorded a version for the Maybe this Christmas compilation.

In 2005, Christopher Williams recorded a version on his album Unbroken Song (Big Red Van Music).

In 2005, MercyMe included a version of the song on their Christmas album The Christmas Sessions.

In 2006, Bette Midler recorded the song for her album Cool Yule.

In 2007, CCM artists, Jars of Clay included a version of the song on their Christmas Songs album.

In 2008, Mark Hall, lead vocalist of Casting Crowns, recorded his own arrangement, which was released on their Christmas album, Peace On Earth.

In 2011, Richard Marx recorded his version of the song for his The Christmas EP album and later released it on his Christmas Spirit album.

In 2012, The Civil Wars recorded their version of the song for a collaborative Christmas album entitled Holidays Rule.

Cultural ReferencesEdit

In Chapter Five of his 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury described the carol as "immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it was sung." The whistled carol is an ironic presage of the evil that Cooger & Dark's carnival is about to bring to Green Town, Illinois.[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. "The Christmas Carol Soldier" from The Sons of Union Veterans
  2. Calhoun, Charles. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 223–224. ISBN 978-0-8070-7039-0
  3. 3.0 3.1 Studwell, William. The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, New York: The Haworth Press, 1995: 166. ISBN 1-56024-974-9
  4. Gale, Robert L. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003: 28. ISBN 0-313-32350-X
  5. Irmscher, Christoph. Longfellow Redux. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006: 293. ISBN 978-0-252-03063-5
  6. Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes. New York ; Toronto : Bantam Books, 1990, ©1962: 18–19. ISBN 978-0-553-28032-6

External linksEdit

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