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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
Genre Hymn
Written 1863
Text Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Based on Micah 5:5
Meter (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:

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 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. Steven Curtis Chapman, Johnny Cash, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Jimmie Rodgers have recorded this version.[citation needed] Less commonly, the poem has also been set to Joseph Mainzer's composition "Mainzer" (1845).[6]

Since at least the middle of the 20th century, the poem has been set to other musical arrangements:

  • Johnny Marks, known for his song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", set Longfellow's poem to music in 1956. Marks' version has been recorded by Bing Crosby, Ed Ames, Harry Belafonte, The Carpenters, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Burl Ives, Sarah McLachlan, Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith and other artists listed below. Marks' composition is now commonly used for modern recordings of the carol, though Calkin's version is still heard as well.[citation needed]
  • In 1956, Bing Crosby's version (recorded on October 3, 1956 and released as a single)[7] 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."[8] "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."[9]
  • On June 16, 1964, Frank Sinatra recorded the song for inclusion in the album "12 Songs of Christmas".
  • In 1990, John Gorka recorded his arrangement, titled "Christmas Bells", which uses stanzas 1, 2, 6, and 7 of the poem on the album, A Winter's Solstice III (Windham Hill Records) 1990.[citation needed]
  • Bryan Duncan recorded "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" on his album Christmas is Jesus (Myrrh Records)[citation needed]
  • In 1999, MU330 recorded a ska-punk version for their Christmas album, Winter Wonderland (Asian Man Records).
  • In 2000, the vocal group Rockapella began their album Christmas with an arrangement of the classic carol edition[citation needed]
  • In 2002, choral composer Greg Gilpin set the words to the tune "Waly, Waly", an 18th-century English folk song, in a sheet-music arrangement that is interesting because of its use of hand bells to illustrate the words; it omitted the last verse[10]
  • In 2004, Pedro the Lion recorded a version for the Maybe this Christmas compilation[citation needed]
  • 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 2006, Hawk Nelson released an arrangement called "I Heard the Bells" on their Gloria EP, which also uses stanzas 1, 2, 6, and 7 of the poem
  • In 2007, Contemporary Christian music artists, Jars of Clay, included a version of the song on Christmas Songs
  • In 2008, Mark Hall, lead vocalist of Casting Crowns, recorded his own arrangement, which was released on Peace on Earth
  • In 2011, Richard Marx recorded his version of the song for his The Christmas EP and later released it on Christmas Spirit
  • 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 4 December 2011[11]
  • In 2012, The Civil Wars recorded their version of the song for a collaborative Christmas album entitled Holidays Rule
  • In 2013, Echosmith recorded their version of the song and made it available to download for free on their website through the month of December[12]
  • In 2017, Randall Goodgame recorded a new melody with slightly altered text for a version of the song on his Slugs and Bugs Family Christmas album.[13]

In popular cultureEdit

  • 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).[14] 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").

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. ^ "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,". Retrieved 15 March 2017. 
  7. ^ "A Bing Crosby Discography". BING magazine. International Club Crosby. Retrieved October 4, 2017. 
  8. ^ "Variety". November 7, 1956. 
  9. ^ "Billboard". December 15, 1956. 
  10. ^ Gilpin, Greg (2002). "Peace on Earth (SATB)". J.W. Pepper Sheet Music. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  11. ^ "D&E to host holiday performance". November 30, 2011. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  12. ^ "Free Holiday Song Download From Echosmith". Warner Bros Records. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  13. ^ "Family Christmas album - Slugs and Bugs website". Retrieved 2017-11-13. 
  14. ^ 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