“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has been an American yuletide classic since Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1964. It’s especially fitting today, given the protracted partisan bitterness that dominates Washington , D.C. politics today.
Ted, a retired Lutheran minister, reminded me on Christmas Eve that the lyrics were actually written a century before Sinatra’s voice was pressed into vinyl on his album, “12 Songs of Christmas.”
In 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned his poem, “Christmas Bells,” three weeks after visiting his son, Lt. Charles “Charley” Appleton Longfellow, who lay seriously injured from a gunshot wound he sustained while fighting for the Union Army during the American Civil War.
The elder Longfellow was already in grief over the tragic accidental death of his wife a few years earlier.
The bullet that hit Charley entered his left shoulder and traveled across his back before it exited under his right shoulder, nearly hitting his spine.
Upon arriving at the Washington, D.C. hospital where his son was transferred, the elder Longfellow was informed by surgeons that Charley’s injury “was very serious” and that “paralysis might ensue.”
On Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow heard the Christmas bells pealing and carolers singing “peace on earth” from a local church. He thought about those words, “peace on earth,” as his son lay seriously injured and the nation was at war with itself.
The disparity between the words, taken from scripture, Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” and what Longfellow was himself witnessing, prompted the 57-year-old poet to write “Christmas Bells.”
The next-to-last stanza described his grief upon hearing the belles and carolers that Christmas day:
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 Longfellow’s grief turned into hope in the poem’s final stanza:
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.”
When Sinatra recorded the song a century later, the United States was still grieving the loss of a president, John F. Kennedy, whose young life was cut short a year earlier by an assassin’s bullet.
America was also divided at that time because of an escalating war being waged in Southeast Asia, and it was fitting that Longfellow’s words, set to music, be sung as a reminder that not all is lost, that hope springs eternal.
It’s also fitting that 55 years after the recording, Longfellow’s words and Sinatra’s voice once again remind us that although “hate is strong, And mocks the song” in this day, that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
You can read the full story behind the poem, as well as the complete poem itself here. A Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all.