I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day December 23, 2015

The following column was written by The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:

Bells. Bells! Few sounds are so joyously teamed with Christmas as that of bells—happily ringing, singing to all that Christmastime is here once again. And one of our most beloved Christmas carols celebrates just that.

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.

The “lyricist” was none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose 1863 poem inspired the carol. It was first set to music in 1872, but you probably know the music written much later, by Johnny Marks in 1950. (The carol was recorded by—among many others—Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.)

Most of us know only the first verse. There’s much more to it, though, and it was all told in an op-ed piece in The Record, a North Jersey paper, by an old acquaintance, Charles Austin, a retired Lutheran pastor who used to report for The New York Times. It goes like this:

When he first wrote the poem, Longfellow was still mourning the death of his wife in an 1861 fire. Only a month before, he learned at his Massachusetts home that his son had been seriously wounded fighting for the North in the Civil War. His spirits were sagging, although they revived as he wrote the first stanza and another that followed it. But by the third and fourth he allowed despair to grip him once more—and wrote that the War, which consumed the country, had made the concept of peace on earth “forlorn” once more.

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 yet the theme persisted—as if in answer, Austin wrote, to Longfellow’s sorrow. The poet took up his task yet again:

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.”
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!

“We need to hear more bells,” Austin concludes his article. “Perhaps we could train ourselves to hear even the pop tunes and secular carols as reminders that this season is a time when, although ‘peace on earth, good will to all’ might not cover the world, it can be present and, indeed, is present so long as we sing about it—and let even a small measure of peace on earth and good will into our lives.”

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