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Longfellow’s Christmas Bells

The sorrow behind the joyful words.

As a writer, I’m always fascinated to learn the history behind the stories and how the events at the time might influence the  words that flow onto a blank page. Good or bad, joyous or devastating–strong emotions can evolve into powerful prose. A good example is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of my all time favorites.

Longfellow’s Sorrow

In the case of Christmas Bells, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to his poem on December 25, 1864.  The music and message is up-lifting.

The words actually came from a very distraught Longfellow during one of the lowest times in his life.

Tragedy Strikes

Three years earlier, his beloved wife Fanny had tried to preserve her daughter’s hair clippings in wax.  In a tragic turn of events, hot candle wax dripped onto Fanny’s dress, igniting it in flames. She ran into her husband’s study, where Henry tried to extinguish the blaze with a rug. He experienced severe burns to his face, arms, and hands. How they both must have suffered through that long night, only to have Fanny die the next morning. Henry was much too ill  to even attend her funeral.

A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” reads Longfellows’ journal entry dated December 25, 1862.

Tragedy struck the family again in 1863 when his oldest son Charles, who was only 19 at the time, suffered a severe wound as a lieutenant in a battle. Charles had left without his father’s blessing, joining the Union cause in March of that same year.

Fanny Longfellow

The Christmas season of 1864 must have been a dreadful time for Longfellow, as he cared for his motherless small children, Ernest, Alice, Edith and Allegra. The Civil War was raging, skirmishes had continued throughout the country as they were still months away from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

From the depths of his soul he wrote “Christmas Bells”, which some believe to be a pacifist poem roused by his grief upon hearing about his son. It was first published in 1865 in a juvenile magazine.

In 1872, five stanzas were rearranged by John Baptiste Calkin and put to the tune “Waltham”. Two stanzas referencing the war were omitted, and the poem became the beloved song of today.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

And mild and sweet their songs repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells are ringing

Like a choir they’re singing

In my heart I hear them

Peace on earth, good will to men

silver-bellsAnd 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

But the bells are ringing

Like a choir singing

Does anybody hear them?

Peace on earth, good will to men

Then the bells rang more load and deep

God is not dead, nor does He sleep

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men

 “And in despair I bow my head

At the lowest point in his life, Longfellow bows his head in despair and the result are powerful words that have brought hope and joy to millions since.

For us, Christmas is a time of joy spent with our teen boys and also a time of sadness as we remember the ones who leave an empty place at our holiday table (my parents and my husband’s mother, in particular.) Twenty-one years ago my husband and I buried our first born son, and every day I wonder about the kind of person he might have been. I truly believe that God gave us strength and send the people who helped us through that terrible time. I never imagined that we’d have to leave the hospital without our child.

There were days I couldn’t breathe. There were mornings I couldn’t get out of bed. There were times when I felt the sunshine on my face and the ache in my soul began to heal. The reality is that you may be sad every day. Know this and accept it, but on some days you’ll feel a sliver of hope. You will bow your head and find comfort. You will seek answers and discover the blessings of the moment. You will find a reason for joy once again.

May you have a joyous and fun-filled Christmas!

Natalie Bright is the author of the Rescue Animal Series of nonfiction picture books; true stories about second chances.