“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The near loss of a son inspires a song of hope

Grieving a loss is always painful, but grieving during the holiday season when most other people seem so cheerful is especially hard. This was the position of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in December, 1863.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Credit: biography.com

Two years earlier, his beloved wife, Fanny, had burned to death in a tragic accident. He had tried to put the fire out by rubbing his face against hers. As a result, he had scarred his cheeks so badly that he was never able to shave his beard again. The result was the long facial hair for which he became known during his later years.

In March of 1863, his 17 year old son Charles ran away from home to join the Union Army during the Civil War. Charles had always been a daredevil, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was terribly worried. He could not talk Charles into changing his mind, though.

In a matter of months, Charles came down with tuberculosis and typhoid. He returned home to recover. By August, he had rejoined the Union Army in spite of his father’s protests.

In November, Charles was involved in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. He suffered a bullet wound to his left shoulder. The bullet scraped across his back, nicking his spine, and exited through his right shoulder. He was rushed to a field hospital where he fought for his life.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received news of Charles’s condition on December 1, 1863. He set out immediately to bring his son home. By the time they reached their house in Cambridge, doctors were fairly sure that Charles would live, but they feared he would be paralyzed.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his now famous poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to sort out his troubled emotions. The first verse refers to listening to Christmas bells and enjoying “the old familiar carols.”

His mood soon changes, however:

woman grieving during the holidays

Credit: Publicdomain

“Then 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.’”

In the end, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has his faith restored:

“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.”

The original poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had seven stanzas, two explicitly about the Civil War. By the time composer John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music, about a decade later, the Civil War was over. Calkin removed the stanzas about the war so the music wouldn’t be dated.

As it turned out, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hope was well placed. Charles did not make a complete recovery. He received a medical discharge from the army, but he did not suffer paralysis. Indeed, he used an inheritance to spend most of the rest of his life traveling the globe. He died of pneumonia in 1893 at the age of 47. He outlived his father by about ten years.

Grieving during the holidays is a miserable experience, but it is also important to remember that the holidays offer hope. Whether you celebrate the Chanukah candles that burned for eight days, the birth of Christ, or the winter solstice which symbolizes the return of sunlight, leave the door at least slightly open for things to get better.

Listen to a performance of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by the Casting Crowns in the video below. You may also read the full lyrics here.

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