I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

William Studwell wrote a bit about the history of this hymn in his book The Christmas Carol Reader:

In spite of the mentions of bells and Christmas in the title, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is as much an antiwar song as it is a pro-Christmas song. The poetry of this renowned carol was crafted by the great American literary figure, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), in the midst of the American Civil War. On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote the familiar lines in response to the horror of the bloody fratricidal conflict in general and to the personal tragedy of his son, Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow, who was severely wounded in November 1862.

It was not until sometime after 1872 that the 1863 poem, which was originally titled “Christmas Bells,” was converted into a carol. Some unknown person in some unknown year recognized that Longfellow’s stirring and optimistic interpretation of the bells of Christmas would make a magnificent mate for an 1872 processional which was strongly reminiscent of the ringing of bells. The composer of the appropriate tune, John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), was the most famous of a family of accomplished English musicians. At first Calkin’s melody was published with the 1848 American hymn, “Fling Out the Banner! Let It Float” by George Washington Doane (1799-1859). Ironically, “Fling Out” was an old-fashioned militant missionary hymn which contrasted greatly in purpose and spirit from the more permanent partner of Calkin’s music, “I Heard the Bells.”

Although Calkin’s melody is a beautiful, gentle, and lofty rendition of the sounds of Christmas bells and is quite well received during the holidays, at least three alternative tunes have been tried. These are the moderately popular wafting melody by Johnny Marks (1909-1985), who is most noted for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” plus tunes by John Bishop (ca. 1665-1737) and Alfred Herbert Brewer (1865-1928). Calkin’s melody, however, remains predominant over the others. (Read more)

Here is a recording of the Calkin version (the one in our green Hymnbook):

This is the Johnny Marks melody sung by Burl Ives:

A search of YouTube provides far more hits for the poem set to a completely new tune. This one was written in 2008 by the Christian band Casting Crowns. This version has become very popular with church choirs in the greater Christian community (don’t hold your breath—you won’t hear it in sacrament meeting). Here is their version, with lyrics somewhat the same as the version we sing at church:

Here are the words as Longfellow wrote them. It’s interesting to note the verses that we don’t sing very often and their allusion to the Civil War.

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!

Ed Herrman joined the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to tell the story of the writing of this poem. This video is eight and a half minutes long and is mostly narrative with orchestral accompaniment. The choir joins toward the end and sings verses interspersed with narrative. (This would be a wonderful video for morning time or family home evening.)

*The featured image at the top of the post is Grandma Moses’ “Christmas”

Jessi Vandagriff loves learning, teaching, and spending time with her husband and two young children. She runs a variety of websites, including this one. Her free, Charlotte-Mason-inspired website for teaching children to sing can be found at www.singsolfa.com. She has ambitions to become a decent gardener, hiker, and nature journaler.




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