Christmas Bells

Susanna here, and on this snowy evening my mind’s filled with music.

Cloche_Saint-Antoine_Murat

CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, Wikimedia Commons

For me, Christmas comes with a soundtrack of carols and songs that have woven their way through the years of my life into my heart and memory.

I hear “No Golden Carriage, No Bright Toy” by Gilbert M. Martin, and I’m a young child again, watching my parents’ choir lift up their voices. “The Holly and the Ivy” takes me straight back to my grandparents’ cozy den, with my sister playing on the old pump organ while I turn the pages for her. And Sarah McLachlan’s haunting “Wintersong” has, for the decade since it was released, helped me navigate the hollow places that my sister’s death has left in all our family celebrations.

There are so many songs that are part of my Christmas, but this year the one that’s been stuck in my head is an old one, with words from a poem by Longfellow.

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!

800px-FA_Longfellow_and_sons_c1849

His second wife, Fanny, & their sons

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his first wife, young, when she died during a miscarriage. After years on his own, he remarried and found happiness with his second wife, whom he adored, and the children that soon filled their house  ̶  a happiness marred only by the death of one of their young daughters.

Then came the attack on Fort Sumter in April, 1861. “We are in the beginning of a civil war. A very bitter thought!” wrote Longfellow. “When the times have such a gunpowder flavor, all literature loses its taste. Newspapers are the only reading…The days come and go, with a trouble in the air, and in the hearts of 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!"

A few months later, on July 9, 1861, in a tragic accident, his wife’s dress caught fire. Longfellow tried desperately to put the flames out, even using his own body, but she died from her burns.

Outwardly scarred from his efforts to save her, he passed the next months in a grief so deep  he described himself to a friend as “to the eyes of others, outwardly, calm; but inwardly bleeding to death.”

HenryWadsworthLongfellow_byHealy

Longfellow, by G.P.A. Healy

That first Christmas, as a widower with children, must have been incredibly difficult. On December 25, 1861, he wrote in his journal: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays! But the dear little girls had their Christmas-tree last night; and an unseen presence blessed the scene.”

Two years later, on a stormy December 1, 1863, Longfellow’s dinner was interrupted by a telegram from Washington telling him his son Charles, a cavalry lieutenant fighting with the Union army, had been “severely wounded”. Knowing no more than this, he raced to Washington and waited anxiously for his son to be sent up from Alexandria with the other wounded officers.

When Charles finally arrived in Washington on December 5, Longfellow learned his son had been shot through both shoulders, “an Enfield ball entering under the left shoulder-blade and passing directly through the back, taking off one of the spinal processes and passing under the right shoulder-blade.”

It was a serious wound, with a risk of paralysis, but Longfellow brought his son home and the young officer slowly recovered. By December 28 of that year, the poet wrote to a friend: “He comes down to my study every day, and is propped up with [a pillow] in a great chair. How brave these boys are! Not a single murmur or complaint, though he has a wound in him a foot long.”

The war, of course, continued, as did Longfellow’s losses. The following May brought the illness and death of his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Yet, in spite of it all, at the end of May, 1864, Longfellow wrote to a friend, “I am full of faith, hope, and good heart!”

And those feelings shine through in the poem he put down on paper that Christmas.

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!"

He titled the poem, “Christmas Bells”, and two of its original seven verses directly referenced the Civil War that was  ̶  although he did not know it then  ̶  about to end.

JB Calkin2

J.P. Calkin

Nor did he know that, eight years later, a church organist in London’s Camden Town  ̶  John Baptiste Calkin  ̶  would set that Christmas poem to music, and create a poignant and enduring carol.

It’s a carol that has resonated deeply with me this year, more than most, because I’ve needed its reminder that, when hate seems to be everywhere, it still can be undone by hope and faith.

What songs and music are a part of your own holidays?

135 thoughts on “Christmas Bells”

  1. What a beautiful post Susanna! It had me in tears. I have always loved that carol also, but I didn’t realize the history behind it. And your last paragraph is so true. If there was ever a time we needed hope and faith it is now.

    Reply
  2. What a beautiful post Susanna! It had me in tears. I have always loved that carol also, but I didn’t realize the history behind it. And your last paragraph is so true. If there was ever a time we needed hope and faith it is now.

    Reply
  3. What a beautiful post Susanna! It had me in tears. I have always loved that carol also, but I didn’t realize the history behind it. And your last paragraph is so true. If there was ever a time we needed hope and faith it is now.

    Reply
  4. What a beautiful post Susanna! It had me in tears. I have always loved that carol also, but I didn’t realize the history behind it. And your last paragraph is so true. If there was ever a time we needed hope and faith it is now.

    Reply
  5. What a beautiful post Susanna! It had me in tears. I have always loved that carol also, but I didn’t realize the history behind it. And your last paragraph is so true. If there was ever a time we needed hope and faith it is now.

    Reply
  6. What a sad, but moving story, of a favorite carol. I enjoyed the carols on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s disconcerting that many of them are set to different tunes than I’m used to; different countries, different traditions.
    My train ride home reinforced my faith in the goodness of mankind. I got on the wrong train–twice: one was the 8:21 and the other was going north not south. Who knows from what platform the 8:31 actually left from. Anyhow, people helped me with my app to find may way home, guided me through one station, handled luggage on and off when the gap was large, found me a seat, and reassured me that all would work out, even though the 27th (the day after Boxing Day) is one of the busiest travel days. I am so grateful that there’s a little peace on earth.

    Reply
  7. What a sad, but moving story, of a favorite carol. I enjoyed the carols on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s disconcerting that many of them are set to different tunes than I’m used to; different countries, different traditions.
    My train ride home reinforced my faith in the goodness of mankind. I got on the wrong train–twice: one was the 8:21 and the other was going north not south. Who knows from what platform the 8:31 actually left from. Anyhow, people helped me with my app to find may way home, guided me through one station, handled luggage on and off when the gap was large, found me a seat, and reassured me that all would work out, even though the 27th (the day after Boxing Day) is one of the busiest travel days. I am so grateful that there’s a little peace on earth.

    Reply
  8. What a sad, but moving story, of a favorite carol. I enjoyed the carols on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s disconcerting that many of them are set to different tunes than I’m used to; different countries, different traditions.
    My train ride home reinforced my faith in the goodness of mankind. I got on the wrong train–twice: one was the 8:21 and the other was going north not south. Who knows from what platform the 8:31 actually left from. Anyhow, people helped me with my app to find may way home, guided me through one station, handled luggage on and off when the gap was large, found me a seat, and reassured me that all would work out, even though the 27th (the day after Boxing Day) is one of the busiest travel days. I am so grateful that there’s a little peace on earth.

    Reply
  9. What a sad, but moving story, of a favorite carol. I enjoyed the carols on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s disconcerting that many of them are set to different tunes than I’m used to; different countries, different traditions.
    My train ride home reinforced my faith in the goodness of mankind. I got on the wrong train–twice: one was the 8:21 and the other was going north not south. Who knows from what platform the 8:31 actually left from. Anyhow, people helped me with my app to find may way home, guided me through one station, handled luggage on and off when the gap was large, found me a seat, and reassured me that all would work out, even though the 27th (the day after Boxing Day) is one of the busiest travel days. I am so grateful that there’s a little peace on earth.

    Reply
  10. What a sad, but moving story, of a favorite carol. I enjoyed the carols on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s disconcerting that many of them are set to different tunes than I’m used to; different countries, different traditions.
    My train ride home reinforced my faith in the goodness of mankind. I got on the wrong train–twice: one was the 8:21 and the other was going north not south. Who knows from what platform the 8:31 actually left from. Anyhow, people helped me with my app to find may way home, guided me through one station, handled luggage on and off when the gap was large, found me a seat, and reassured me that all would work out, even though the 27th (the day after Boxing Day) is one of the busiest travel days. I am so grateful that there’s a little peace on earth.

    Reply
  11. Susanna, you have written about one of my favorite carols. I listen for it (or sing it to myself) almost every year, because so may of my Christmas weeks have been in troubled times (I was born just before the depression, so anyone looking at US and World events can easily see why I have felt this way.)
    My other two favorite Christmas pieces are anthems, rather than carols. “O Holy Night” is very well known, but I am even more fond of “No Candle was there, and no fire, on the night when Jesus was born. …”

    Reply
  12. Susanna, you have written about one of my favorite carols. I listen for it (or sing it to myself) almost every year, because so may of my Christmas weeks have been in troubled times (I was born just before the depression, so anyone looking at US and World events can easily see why I have felt this way.)
    My other two favorite Christmas pieces are anthems, rather than carols. “O Holy Night” is very well known, but I am even more fond of “No Candle was there, and no fire, on the night when Jesus was born. …”

    Reply
  13. Susanna, you have written about one of my favorite carols. I listen for it (or sing it to myself) almost every year, because so may of my Christmas weeks have been in troubled times (I was born just before the depression, so anyone looking at US and World events can easily see why I have felt this way.)
    My other two favorite Christmas pieces are anthems, rather than carols. “O Holy Night” is very well known, but I am even more fond of “No Candle was there, and no fire, on the night when Jesus was born. …”

    Reply
  14. Susanna, you have written about one of my favorite carols. I listen for it (or sing it to myself) almost every year, because so may of my Christmas weeks have been in troubled times (I was born just before the depression, so anyone looking at US and World events can easily see why I have felt this way.)
    My other two favorite Christmas pieces are anthems, rather than carols. “O Holy Night” is very well known, but I am even more fond of “No Candle was there, and no fire, on the night when Jesus was born. …”

    Reply
  15. Susanna, you have written about one of my favorite carols. I listen for it (or sing it to myself) almost every year, because so may of my Christmas weeks have been in troubled times (I was born just before the depression, so anyone looking at US and World events can easily see why I have felt this way.)
    My other two favorite Christmas pieces are anthems, rather than carols. “O Holy Night” is very well known, but I am even more fond of “No Candle was there, and no fire, on the night when Jesus was born. …”

    Reply
  16. Such a bittersweet post. I love that particular carol, but never knew its history until now.
    This season’s beauty of faith and hope is definitely something we all need. How I wish the spirit of Christmas could stay with us all year long!

    Reply
  17. Such a bittersweet post. I love that particular carol, but never knew its history until now.
    This season’s beauty of faith and hope is definitely something we all need. How I wish the spirit of Christmas could stay with us all year long!

    Reply
  18. Such a bittersweet post. I love that particular carol, but never knew its history until now.
    This season’s beauty of faith and hope is definitely something we all need. How I wish the spirit of Christmas could stay with us all year long!

    Reply
  19. Such a bittersweet post. I love that particular carol, but never knew its history until now.
    This season’s beauty of faith and hope is definitely something we all need. How I wish the spirit of Christmas could stay with us all year long!

    Reply
  20. Such a bittersweet post. I love that particular carol, but never knew its history until now.
    This season’s beauty of faith and hope is definitely something we all need. How I wish the spirit of Christmas could stay with us all year long!

    Reply
  21. I never heard of the Longfellow poem, so I went to youtube and found one recording I really enjoyed by Jason Castro with the lyrics on the screen as he sings it to the lovely Calkin melody. It’s a beautiful rendition.
    Other than some traditional Christmas carols during a church service as an adult, I wasn’t familiar with any other songs during the holidays. We didn’t sing them at home. No one thought about doing that.
    As a child I heard carols and other popular songs related to the holiday like Berlin’s “White Christmas” on television through Christmas specials celebrities would have.

    Reply
  22. I never heard of the Longfellow poem, so I went to youtube and found one recording I really enjoyed by Jason Castro with the lyrics on the screen as he sings it to the lovely Calkin melody. It’s a beautiful rendition.
    Other than some traditional Christmas carols during a church service as an adult, I wasn’t familiar with any other songs during the holidays. We didn’t sing them at home. No one thought about doing that.
    As a child I heard carols and other popular songs related to the holiday like Berlin’s “White Christmas” on television through Christmas specials celebrities would have.

    Reply
  23. I never heard of the Longfellow poem, so I went to youtube and found one recording I really enjoyed by Jason Castro with the lyrics on the screen as he sings it to the lovely Calkin melody. It’s a beautiful rendition.
    Other than some traditional Christmas carols during a church service as an adult, I wasn’t familiar with any other songs during the holidays. We didn’t sing them at home. No one thought about doing that.
    As a child I heard carols and other popular songs related to the holiday like Berlin’s “White Christmas” on television through Christmas specials celebrities would have.

    Reply
  24. I never heard of the Longfellow poem, so I went to youtube and found one recording I really enjoyed by Jason Castro with the lyrics on the screen as he sings it to the lovely Calkin melody. It’s a beautiful rendition.
    Other than some traditional Christmas carols during a church service as an adult, I wasn’t familiar with any other songs during the holidays. We didn’t sing them at home. No one thought about doing that.
    As a child I heard carols and other popular songs related to the holiday like Berlin’s “White Christmas” on television through Christmas specials celebrities would have.

    Reply
  25. I never heard of the Longfellow poem, so I went to youtube and found one recording I really enjoyed by Jason Castro with the lyrics on the screen as he sings it to the lovely Calkin melody. It’s a beautiful rendition.
    Other than some traditional Christmas carols during a church service as an adult, I wasn’t familiar with any other songs during the holidays. We didn’t sing them at home. No one thought about doing that.
    As a child I heard carols and other popular songs related to the holiday like Berlin’s “White Christmas” on television through Christmas specials celebrities would have.

    Reply
  26. Gorgeous post, Susanna. My earliest years were among homesick German-speaking people (in Australia) and to this day the songs, O Tannebaum (not sure of the spelling — the English version is O Christmas tree) and Abendstille überall (not sure of the translation but it’s something like Evening stillness everywhere) give me goosebumps. I don’t even know the lyrics properly, only the beginning few lines, because we left there when I was four.

    Reply
  27. Gorgeous post, Susanna. My earliest years were among homesick German-speaking people (in Australia) and to this day the songs, O Tannebaum (not sure of the spelling — the English version is O Christmas tree) and Abendstille überall (not sure of the translation but it’s something like Evening stillness everywhere) give me goosebumps. I don’t even know the lyrics properly, only the beginning few lines, because we left there when I was four.

    Reply
  28. Gorgeous post, Susanna. My earliest years were among homesick German-speaking people (in Australia) and to this day the songs, O Tannebaum (not sure of the spelling — the English version is O Christmas tree) and Abendstille überall (not sure of the translation but it’s something like Evening stillness everywhere) give me goosebumps. I don’t even know the lyrics properly, only the beginning few lines, because we left there when I was four.

    Reply
  29. Gorgeous post, Susanna. My earliest years were among homesick German-speaking people (in Australia) and to this day the songs, O Tannebaum (not sure of the spelling — the English version is O Christmas tree) and Abendstille überall (not sure of the translation but it’s something like Evening stillness everywhere) give me goosebumps. I don’t even know the lyrics properly, only the beginning few lines, because we left there when I was four.

    Reply
  30. Gorgeous post, Susanna. My earliest years were among homesick German-speaking people (in Australia) and to this day the songs, O Tannebaum (not sure of the spelling — the English version is O Christmas tree) and Abendstille überall (not sure of the translation but it’s something like Evening stillness everywhere) give me goosebumps. I don’t even know the lyrics properly, only the beginning few lines, because we left there when I was four.

    Reply
  31. I did not know the history of this beautiful Christmas hymn, but it has always been one of my favourites! Thank you for sharing. It was our closing hymn at church on Christmas day. Merry Christmas to you and your family! Lori

    Reply
  32. I did not know the history of this beautiful Christmas hymn, but it has always been one of my favourites! Thank you for sharing. It was our closing hymn at church on Christmas day. Merry Christmas to you and your family! Lori

    Reply
  33. I did not know the history of this beautiful Christmas hymn, but it has always been one of my favourites! Thank you for sharing. It was our closing hymn at church on Christmas day. Merry Christmas to you and your family! Lori

    Reply
  34. I did not know the history of this beautiful Christmas hymn, but it has always been one of my favourites! Thank you for sharing. It was our closing hymn at church on Christmas day. Merry Christmas to you and your family! Lori

    Reply
  35. I did not know the history of this beautiful Christmas hymn, but it has always been one of my favourites! Thank you for sharing. It was our closing hymn at church on Christmas day. Merry Christmas to you and your family! Lori

    Reply
  36. I have had the song running through my mind this past week even though I heard no bells. Glad to know the story behind it.
    I was a child in Connecticut. I still remember going Christmas shopping in a light snow flurry while the bells of a nearby church played carols. I think “Joy to the World” is one of the best expressions of Christmas.

    Reply
  37. I have had the song running through my mind this past week even though I heard no bells. Glad to know the story behind it.
    I was a child in Connecticut. I still remember going Christmas shopping in a light snow flurry while the bells of a nearby church played carols. I think “Joy to the World” is one of the best expressions of Christmas.

    Reply
  38. I have had the song running through my mind this past week even though I heard no bells. Glad to know the story behind it.
    I was a child in Connecticut. I still remember going Christmas shopping in a light snow flurry while the bells of a nearby church played carols. I think “Joy to the World” is one of the best expressions of Christmas.

    Reply
  39. I have had the song running through my mind this past week even though I heard no bells. Glad to know the story behind it.
    I was a child in Connecticut. I still remember going Christmas shopping in a light snow flurry while the bells of a nearby church played carols. I think “Joy to the World” is one of the best expressions of Christmas.

    Reply
  40. I have had the song running through my mind this past week even though I heard no bells. Glad to know the story behind it.
    I was a child in Connecticut. I still remember going Christmas shopping in a light snow flurry while the bells of a nearby church played carols. I think “Joy to the World” is one of the best expressions of Christmas.

    Reply
  41. Susanna, you have given me quite a gift today. Thank you for this post and your kindness in sharing such a moving story. I also want to say how sorry I am for your loss. This past year has been one of loss for me and my family so I do understand the difficulty you have faced. Please know that your words have provided a wonderful perspective for me.

    Reply
  42. Susanna, you have given me quite a gift today. Thank you for this post and your kindness in sharing such a moving story. I also want to say how sorry I am for your loss. This past year has been one of loss for me and my family so I do understand the difficulty you have faced. Please know that your words have provided a wonderful perspective for me.

    Reply
  43. Susanna, you have given me quite a gift today. Thank you for this post and your kindness in sharing such a moving story. I also want to say how sorry I am for your loss. This past year has been one of loss for me and my family so I do understand the difficulty you have faced. Please know that your words have provided a wonderful perspective for me.

    Reply
  44. Susanna, you have given me quite a gift today. Thank you for this post and your kindness in sharing such a moving story. I also want to say how sorry I am for your loss. This past year has been one of loss for me and my family so I do understand the difficulty you have faced. Please know that your words have provided a wonderful perspective for me.

    Reply
  45. Susanna, you have given me quite a gift today. Thank you for this post and your kindness in sharing such a moving story. I also want to say how sorry I am for your loss. This past year has been one of loss for me and my family so I do understand the difficulty you have faced. Please know that your words have provided a wonderful perspective for me.

    Reply
  46. My father was German, and our tradition was to open the presents on Christmas Eve. But before we could do so, my brother and I had to sing 2 carols in German, “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
    But what a tragic story about Longfellow, poor man!

    Reply
  47. My father was German, and our tradition was to open the presents on Christmas Eve. But before we could do so, my brother and I had to sing 2 carols in German, “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
    But what a tragic story about Longfellow, poor man!

    Reply
  48. My father was German, and our tradition was to open the presents on Christmas Eve. But before we could do so, my brother and I had to sing 2 carols in German, “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
    But what a tragic story about Longfellow, poor man!

    Reply
  49. My father was German, and our tradition was to open the presents on Christmas Eve. But before we could do so, my brother and I had to sing 2 carols in German, “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
    But what a tragic story about Longfellow, poor man!

    Reply
  50. My father was German, and our tradition was to open the presents on Christmas Eve. But before we could do so, my brother and I had to sing 2 carols in German, “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
    But what a tragic story about Longfellow, poor man!

    Reply
  51. Wow. Thank you, Susanna. I haven’t looked at email in days and was trying to race through as much as possible as quickly as possible. I saw the title of this and thought, “don’t need to read about Christmas Bells” and was just about to delete when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m so very glad I did and I just forwarded it to my husband as well. Here’s hoping 2017 somehow turns out to be a peaceful and blessed year for all.

    Reply
  52. Wow. Thank you, Susanna. I haven’t looked at email in days and was trying to race through as much as possible as quickly as possible. I saw the title of this and thought, “don’t need to read about Christmas Bells” and was just about to delete when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m so very glad I did and I just forwarded it to my husband as well. Here’s hoping 2017 somehow turns out to be a peaceful and blessed year for all.

    Reply
  53. Wow. Thank you, Susanna. I haven’t looked at email in days and was trying to race through as much as possible as quickly as possible. I saw the title of this and thought, “don’t need to read about Christmas Bells” and was just about to delete when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m so very glad I did and I just forwarded it to my husband as well. Here’s hoping 2017 somehow turns out to be a peaceful and blessed year for all.

    Reply
  54. Wow. Thank you, Susanna. I haven’t looked at email in days and was trying to race through as much as possible as quickly as possible. I saw the title of this and thought, “don’t need to read about Christmas Bells” and was just about to delete when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m so very glad I did and I just forwarded it to my husband as well. Here’s hoping 2017 somehow turns out to be a peaceful and blessed year for all.

    Reply
  55. Wow. Thank you, Susanna. I haven’t looked at email in days and was trying to race through as much as possible as quickly as possible. I saw the title of this and thought, “don’t need to read about Christmas Bells” and was just about to delete when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m so very glad I did and I just forwarded it to my husband as well. Here’s hoping 2017 somehow turns out to be a peaceful and blessed year for all.

    Reply
  56. Patricia, I was very fortunate in that my mother played piano and my father sings (baritone), and when I was little they both belonged to our town’s choir so our house was always filled with music at Christmas. Besides which, we always had the record player (Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters, and Engelbert Humperdinck were always a part of our Christmas!)

    Reply
  57. Patricia, I was very fortunate in that my mother played piano and my father sings (baritone), and when I was little they both belonged to our town’s choir so our house was always filled with music at Christmas. Besides which, we always had the record player (Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters, and Engelbert Humperdinck were always a part of our Christmas!)

    Reply
  58. Patricia, I was very fortunate in that my mother played piano and my father sings (baritone), and when I was little they both belonged to our town’s choir so our house was always filled with music at Christmas. Besides which, we always had the record player (Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters, and Engelbert Humperdinck were always a part of our Christmas!)

    Reply
  59. Patricia, I was very fortunate in that my mother played piano and my father sings (baritone), and when I was little they both belonged to our town’s choir so our house was always filled with music at Christmas. Besides which, we always had the record player (Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters, and Engelbert Humperdinck were always a part of our Christmas!)

    Reply
  60. Patricia, I was very fortunate in that my mother played piano and my father sings (baritone), and when I was little they both belonged to our town’s choir so our house was always filled with music at Christmas. Besides which, we always had the record player (Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters, and Engelbert Humperdinck were always a part of our Christmas!)

    Reply

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