Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – 1807-1882

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.”

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 fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army 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.” Charles was soon appointed as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.

Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863. “Christmas Bells” was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields. References to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. The refrain “peace on Earth, goodwill to men” is a reference to the King James Version of Luke 2:14.

The spirit of Christmas has a tendency to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. This year, as we speed towards a decidedly topsy-turvy Christmas amidst the worsening coronavirus pandemic, it’s more important than ever to reflect on the true meaning of the season. Like Longfellow in 1863, we are currently in our own war of sorts. We are in a war against COVID-19, but the vaccine is a powerful weapon against it. However, the main war we are fighting is that against Trumpism. Trump’s leadership of hatred has spawned a cultural war like nothing we have seen. Yes, there are comparisons in American history, but nothing come to the level at which Trump has politicized every aspect of American life. The divisiveness he has caused in this country has pitted families against one another, as the Civil War did 160 year ago. The 1860 election was another election that pitted half the country against one another. In 1860, though, the South did not see Abraham Lincoln as a candidate who won a fraudulent election, but as someone who stood for something they were against and feared it would destroy their way of life. Trump has pushed his claims of a fraudulent election and has played on those who fear Democrats will destroy their way of life. Trump supporters are complacent (at best) with their racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. At worst, they are openly racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic. The combinations of complacency toward hatred and open support of hatred are mixed, but all Trump supporters follow the hatred espoused by Trump to some extent.

With 90 percent of Congressional Republicans refusing to acknowledge Trump’s defeat, they are actively destroying the fabrics of democracy and the Constitution they swore to uphold. Republicans who are not speaking out against Trump may think they are not supporting him, but their silence is support. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Sadly, with those who supported Trump and especially those who have supported his anti-scientific views about the pandemic, it is our friends and family who supported him who hurt us the most. Elie Wiesel, the author of Night, probably said it best, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

“Christmas Bells” tells of Longfellow’s despair, upon hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, 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 live next door to an Episcopal church and a few doors down across the street is the Methodist church. Both churches ring their bells on Sunday mornings calling worshipers to service, and I assume they do the same on Christmas Day, though I have never been here to hear it. On Friday, I expect to hear their bells, and I will think of the four years of a national nightmare that has been the Trump presidency. I will think on the year of hardships suffered because a pandemic raged unchecked in our country. I will think of the fact that because of the mismanagement of the pandemic, I am not home with my family having Christmas breakfast that morning and watching my niece and nephew play with the toys Santa brought them. However, I hope that like Longfellow, I will remember:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
      The Wrong shall fail,
      The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

In 1872, the poem was first set to music as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody “Waltham” that he previously used as early as 1848. The Calkin version of the carol was long the standard. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to Joseph Mainzer’s 1845 composition “Mainzer.” In the 20th century, Paul Mickelson recorded the John Baptiste Calkin version as an instrumental on the album “Christmas Bells” in 1955, and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded a version with lyrics in 1957. Since the middle of the 20th century, the poem has been set to other musical arrangements, most notably in 1956 by Johnny Marks. Bing Crosby recorded the song on October 3, 1956, using Marks’s melody and verses 1, 2, 6, 7. With Christmas just days away, I find more significance in Longfellow’s poem and the nearly 60-year-old song adaptation. Though decades have passed since the powerful poem was translated into song, the message remains one that we should all take to heart. It can give us hope. I prefer the Burl Ives version over the Bing Crosby one.

The Trump presidency will be over at noon on January 20, 2021. The Biden administration can then begin a recovery and reconstruction of the United States. Democracy and law and order will be restored. A vaccine is being distributed, and soon we can put this year of 2020 behind us. As Elizabeth II said in 1992, this “is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.” There is a lot to look forward to in 2021, but it will take a lot of work and cooperation among Americans. I pray that the damage done by the Trump presidency is not too significant to repair. I also pray that Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock win the Senate runoff election in Georgia because it will make the recovery of American democracy go much smoother because we will be able to get rid of a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell. 

Let us remember on this Christmas Luke 2:10-11, when the angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you.” Then a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed saying:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

— Luke 2:14

Let the Glory of God be a sign to us that better days are ahead.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

2 responses to “Christmas Bells

  • Beau

    This Christmas carol was one of several still popular ones that Unitarians wrote in the 19th century that tied faith to ethics. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “O Holy Night” and “Jingle Bells” (Christmas song that was written for Thanksgiving and has no religious or ethical meaning) were all either written, translated, or reworked by 19th century Unitarians.

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