3rd Day Christmas Past Question and Story

Posted by on Dec 14, 2016 in Christmas Past 2016 | 13 comments

Untitled-2On the 3rd Day of Christmas Past, a Carol that we sing.
Question: Who was inspired to write the words found in the hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and why?

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The Story Behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

One of America’s best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), composed the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on December 25th 1864.  The carol was originally a poem, “Christmas Bells,” containing seven stanzas. Two stanzas were omitted, which contained references to the American Civil War, thus giving us the carol in its present form. The poem gave birth to the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the remaining five stanzas were slightly rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), who also gave us the memorable tune.

As with any composition that touches the heart of the hearer, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flowed from the experience of Longfellow– Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. The opening shots of American Civil War rang out on April 12th, and Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in their library on July 10th.

His wife’s death – Fanny, Henry’s wife, had just finished trimming one of their daughter, Edith’s, beautiful curls.  She decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. Through an open window a sea breeze blew, igniting the light material of Fanny’s dress– immediately wrapping her in flames. In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry’s study in the next room, where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby rug.  Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances– severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral. (Incidentally, the trademark full beard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow arose from his inability to shave after this tragedy.)

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote,”I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”  It seemed as though all Christmases were now filled with despair.

Worry for his son – Almost a year later, Charles Appleton Longfellow (Henry’s son) who was 17 years old, ran away in the middle of the night not leaving a note as to where he was going.  He hopped aboard a train and headed for Washington D.C. to join Mr. Lincoln’s Army. He was by no means the first or the last youth that simply couldn’t stay home while so many of his peers were off participating in the great adventure of the Civil War, but he may have been the most prominent runaway from Boston and possibly New England that year. His father had not wanted him to go enlist.

Upon arrival in Washington Charley went to Captain W. H. McCartney, and asked to enlist. Captain McCartney, who knew the boy, did not want to enlist this young man without his parent’s approval so he immediately wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow asking his advice. To his credit, or perhaps knowing his son’s personality, HWL (as his son called him) gave permission for Charley to enlist.  He proved to be a natural soldier. He grasped the elements of drill, camp, and military life with amazing aptitude. He became a great favorite with his fellow artillerymen and showed decided leadership skills, which commended him to his superior officers and he quickly rose in rank.

However, on December 1, word was received to Henry that Charles had been severely wounded from a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. If he survived there was a great chance he would never walk again.  Henry and his younger son, Ernest, left at once for Washington, D.C. where they finally met up with Charley and brought him home. They reached Cambridge on December 8 and Charles began the slow process of recovering. As Henry sat nursing his son on Christmas morning  he felt an overwhelming thanks and peace for his son’s survival and penned the following poem (original words to “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 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.”

It seemed that he could now find peace.  Longfellow’s Christmas bells loudly proclaimed, “God is not dead.  Even more, the bells announced, “Nor doth He sleep.”  God’s Truth, Power, and Justice are affirmed, when Longfellow wrote: “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”  The message that the Living God is a God of Peace is proclaimed in the close of the carol: “Of peace on Earth, good will to men.”  His Christmas focus changed from sorrow of missing his wife to an awe of his son’s life being spared.

What could we allow the Christmas bells to bring peace and awaken in us this Christmas?


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  1. I have really enjoyed the daily stories.

  2. After many tragedies he suffered, losing his wife, etc, he had lost his will to be happy. When his son’s life was spared miraculously, his faith and trust in God returned and he was blessed and inspired to write this Christmas Song. I have been blessed this morning by this story. It brought the spirit into my heart and tears flowed.

  3. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to this poem that was later converted to lyrics for the song we have now. After the tragic passing of his wife, he felt the despair during Christmas up until his son became severely injured in the Civil War. The overwhelming peace and gratefulness he felt for the miracle of his sons survival caused him to the poem. This is such a beautiful story and really causes me to be grateful for the blessings I enjoy!

  4. Sad story, but the lesson is that we can find peace after trials and turmoil, if we turn our hearts toward our Heavenly Father.

  5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells…” originally as a poem in His words came from tragic experiences in his life, the beginning of the Civil War and the death of his wife. On Christmas morning of 1864 as he sat at his son’s bedside who was slowly recovering from injuries from the war, Longfellow wrote the words. He now felt peace from the grief of his wife’s death to gratitude that his son’s life had been spared. We, too, can find peace in our trials as we remember our Savior’s Atonement and all good things from our Father in Heaven.

  6. Henry wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words while nursing his son on Christmas morning as his son was recoving from a bullet wound from battle

  7. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the poem was inspired by the tragic death of Henry’s wife, his eldest son’s recovery from being shot in the Civil War; and the experiences he had over the course of his wife’s passing and his son’s recovery, She died from the severe burns from an accidental fire their home library. The lyrics from the song originally came from one of Henry’s poem, “Christmas Bells,” containing seven stanzas. Two stanzas were omitted, which contained references to the American Civil War, thus giving us the carol in its present form. The poem gave birth to the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the remaining five stanzas were slightly rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, who also gave us the memorable tune.

  8. The American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, created the words in the Christmas carol “I heard the Bells on Christmas day” on December 25th 1864. The poem which the carol was based on was rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, who added the carol’s tune. The original poem was based on tragic events that affected the Longfellow family during the Civil War. Fanny, the wife of Henry, was fatally burned after a haircutting incident which led to a fire, which burned the bodies of Henry & Fanny. He would forever after be remembered by his trademark beard, as he could no longer shave after this tragedy. At 17 years of age Henry’s eldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, ran away to join Lincoln’s Army. His efforts to join the North in the war were successful, as he joined Lincoln’s army and proved himself as a natural soldier, and great leadership. Charles was severely wounded from a single bullet, but lived. With news of his son’s survival, Henry wrote the poem titled “Christmas Bells”. Henry’s sorrow during Christmastime changed, and his focus became upon the awe of his son’s life being spared.

  9. Longfellow wrote the poem to reaffirm that God is aware of the world and His hand is over all.

  10. I love Henry’s story and I listen to the cd as I read along. What a beautiful poem from a sad story!!

  11. Longfellow wrote the poem after he realized his great blessing of having his son alive, that made him realize his blessings. But he still expressed his sadness and concern for the world thinking that God was dead. He realized God is not dead but he is watching over all.

  12. I have always loved the music and melody of this hymn, although I didn’t understand the sadness of the words. As I grew older and learned the story of why it was written, it became very loved as a song of hope.

  13. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the lyrics while nursing his son back to health after so much turmoil for his family. God is good and he was thankful there wasn’t another tragedy.

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