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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is a Christmas carol based on the 1863 poem "Christmas Bells" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.[1] The song 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". The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
TextHenry Wadsworth Longfellow
Based onMicah 5:5
Meter8.8.8.8. (L.M.)
Melody"Waltham" by John Baptiste Calkin



In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. Then in 1863, 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. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.

Longfellow 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] References to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung.


The following are the original words of Longfellow's poem:[6]

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."

Musical renditionsEdit

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. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to Joseph Mainzer's composition "Mainzer" (1845).[7] In 2011, Jack Gibbons, the British pianist and composer, set Longfellow's poem to music in his role as artist-in-residence at Davis & Elkins College, and the first performance was given by the Davis & Elkins College choir on December 4, 2011.[8] Since at least the middle of the 20th century, the poem has been set to other musical arrangements.

In 1956, Bing Crosby's version (recorded on October 3, 1956 and released as a single)[9] that reached No. 55 in the Music Vendor survey.[citation needed] The record was praised by both Billboard and Variety. "Bing Crosby's workover of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" looks like a big one for the '56 Yule and a hit potential of enduring value."[10] "At deadline time, not many of this year's Christmas issues had shown much action. This new Crosby record, however, was off to a promising start. As fast as it is catching on early in the month, it is easy to project the impressive volume it will rack up the last half of December."[11]

In chapter five of his 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury describes this carol as "immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it was sung." The carol provides an ironic contrast to the evil that Mr. Dark's carnival is about to bring to Green Town, Illinois (where the story takes place).[12] In the 1983 film adaptation of the novel, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and Charles Halloway (Jason Robards) both quote passages from the carol when they meet in the town's library (though Dark ominously states that "it's a thousand years to Christmas").

In 2008, the contemporary Christian music group, Casting Crowns, scored their eighth No. 1 Christian hit with "I Heard the Bells", from their album Peace on Earth.[citation needed] The song is not an exact replica of the original poem or carol, but an interpolation of verses 1, 6, 7 and 3 (in that order), interposed with a new chorus. However, the new version has re-introduced the original poem to a modern listeners.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The Christmas Carol Soldier" from The Sons of Union Veterans
  2. ^ Calhoun, Charles (2004). Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 223–224. ISBN 978-0-8070-7039-0.
  3. ^ a b Studwell, William (1995). The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, New York: The Haworth Press. p. 166. ISBN 1-56024-974-9.
  4. ^ Gale, Robert L. (2003). A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-313-32350-X.
  5. ^ Irmscher, Christoph (2006). Longfellow Redux. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 293. ISBN 978-0-252-03063-5.
  6. ^ "Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Poems - Academy of American Poets". Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  7. ^ "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,". Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  8. ^ "D&E to host holiday performance". November 30, 2011. Retrieved December 6, 2013.
  9. ^ "A Bing Crosby Discography". BING magazine. International Club Crosby. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  10. ^ "Variety". November 7, 1956.
  11. ^ "Billboard". December 15, 1956.
  12. ^ Bradbury, Ray (1990). Something Wicked This Way Comes. New York & Toronto: Bantam Books. pp. 18–19. ISBN 978-0-553-28032-6. 1962.

External linksEdit