The Christmas song that gets me every time

I am very rarely moved to tears by music. But “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one song that consistently evokes that reaction in me.

The acclaimed American poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote the words on December 25, 1863 (some sources say 1864), in response to the violent state of the nation, which at the time was entrenched in civil war. He had recently received news that his teenage son, Charley—who had run away from home to join the Union Army—had been seriously injured, with doctors saying that permanent paralysis was a possibility. Longfellow rushed to his side in Washington, DC, and while Charley’s recovery and the outcome of the war were still uncertain, he penned this poem, which gives expression to the internal struggle he was experiencing between doubt and belief, despair and hope.

In 1872 Jean Baptiste Calkin applied to Longfellow’s poem a tune he had composed in 1848 for, ironically, “Fling Out the Banner! Let It Float,” a nationalistic Christian hymn written for a flag-raising ceremony at the all-girls boarding school of Saint Mary’s Hall in Burlington, New Jersey. “Fling Out the Banner!” has since passed out of public consciousness, but “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” still stands as a classic, an ever-relevant inquiry into the nature of Christmas peace. In most modern-day recordings and church hymnals, stanzas four and five, which reference the American Civil War, have been removed so that we can read our own context into the song. Also, some hymnals move stanza three to the end, where honestly, I think it makes more sense.

We sang “I Heard the Bells” in church on Sunday, and it being a year of so much murder and hate (what year isn’t?), it tapped into my deep, deep longing for peace on earth. That expression—“peace on earth, goodwill to men”—is compelling but seemingly flaccid: a beautiful ideal, but so far from observable reality. Derived from an angelic pronouncement made on the night of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:14), the phrase is repeated throughout the poem as the speaker wrestles with its meaning.

Here is Longfellow’s poem in full, as originally published in 1866.  

“Christmas Bells”

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 hearthstones 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!”

 

The tone starts off as nostalgic: Longfellow hears the church bells playing traditional carols, and they remind him of happy Christmases of days gone by and the church’s heritage of peace down through the ages. (In my opinion, the second stanza could do with some editorial revision, because although Christ’s call to peace has been continuous and unbroken, Christendom has not always heeded it; the church’s practice of nonviolence and universal goodwill has been shamefully spotty in its long history.) These sweet reflections, however, are interrupted by the thundering canons—with mouths like monsters—of the present war, which overpower the song of the bells. Factional hate has risen to the fore, pitting brother against brother and destroying that which used to bind together.

Longfellow laments this sad course of events, almost succumbing to hopelessness—but then he listens, and he hears something: the bells rising in volume, louder than ever before, with their resilient “Peace! Peace!” In defiance of cynicism, they sing out that God is sovereign over all, and that his gospel of peace will one day take root in this world, displacing every bad thing.

Right now we live between the two advents of Christ. Therefore, we feel a profound tension: that God’s kingdom is already but not yet. Longfellow doesn’t resolve this tension in his poem, but he does eventually find his footing on the promises of God. The hope he is able to confess by the last stanza is not escapist. On the contrary, knowing that in the future all wrongs will be righted prompts us toward present acts of peace and reconciliation. We need not concern ourselves with waging war on the enemy; what we need is to give the world a foretaste of the kingdom to come, to teach and observe the laws of that kingdom so that we’re all prepared and excited to inhabit it when it does come.

I admit, I often get stuck in the perspective of the penultimate stanza: “There is no peace on earth!” And I come close to despair. But then God awakens in me renewed hope. I have to ask him to give me this gift of hope again and again, because without it, I sink.

I like that this song doesn’t gloss over suffering during what is supposed to be a season of cheer. It gives voice to lament, but then it moves into praise. Christ is born! Born to bring peace between man and self, man and man, and man and God. The effects of this peace may not be noticeable on a wide scale now, but the time will come when the peace of Christ will completely blanket the whole world. At such a time “peace on earth, goodwill to men” will no longer seem a cruel jest but will be a beautiful, all-encompassing reality.

Other musical settings of the song

As an addendum . . .

In 1956 Johnny Marks (of “Rudolph, the Ned-Rosed Reindeer” fame and other secular Christmas classics) wrote new music for this carol, which became an instant hit, performed by such greats as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives, and Harry Belafonte. Today Sarah McLachlan’s and Cloverton’s recordings of this version are pretty popular. It’s a toss-up as to which tune is now most commonly associated with “I Heard the Bells”—Marks’s or Calkin’s.

Ever since Marks retuned the carol, its lyrics have inspired dozens of new settings and adaptations. Here are a few notable ones from within the last five years:

I’m still partial to the original melody by Calkin, but I also really like the new one composed by Kevin Burtram of Castle Island Hymns, which you can stream for free on their Bandcamp site by following the link above.

Feel free to share your favorite arrangement(s) of the song in the comment field below! (There really is a wealth of them.)

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