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Longfellow’s Christmas Bells

The sorrow behind the joyful words of Longfellow’s song.

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 we enjoy today is up-lifting.

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

Tragedy Strikes Again

Three years earlier, the summer of 1861, 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. There is one stanza that is rarely sang today, which notes  “the cannon thundered in the South.”

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

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

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. He put words to paper that have brought hope and joy to millions since.

For us, Christmas is a time of joy spent with our two boys and also a time of sadness as we remember the ones who leave an empty place at our table. Twenty-three 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 sent the people who helped us through that terrible time. There were days I couldn’t breathe. There were mornings I couldn’t get out of bed. Then there were times when I felt the sunshine on my face and the ache in my soul began to heal.

The reality is that horrible things happen to everybody. There are days you can’t function. There are moments that bring you to your knees. Know this and accept it, but there will be other days that you’ll feel a sliver of hope.  You may not find the answers you seek. Hopefully you will discover the blessings of that very moment and you will find a reason for joy once again.

May you find strength to overcome the hardships and find a reason to be joyous again. Merry Christmas!

Natalie Bright is a blogger, author and speaker. Her fun, historical western TROUBLE IN TEXAS series for middle grades, is a wild west adventure for the entire family, and the RESCUE ANIMAL series features true stories about rescue horses.  Read about Natalie’s grandmother and her cherry salad recipe, selected for “THE WESTERN WRITERS OF AMERICA COOKBOOK: Favorite Recipes, Cooking Tips, and Writing Wisdom” (TwoDot Publishing, June 2017). I you love women’s fiction, her novella is a dark, drama set in Texas 1930’s titled MAGGIE’S BETRAYAL, selected for the anthology, OUR TIME ON ROUTE 66.  Click on the BOOKS tab at the top of the page for more information.