The story behind the carol, "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day"
— Author unknown
Tragedy struck the home of America’s most popular poet. On July 9, 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, was near an open window sealing locks of her daughter’s hair in a packet, using hot sealing wax. It was never known whether a spark from a match or the sealing wax was the cause, but suddenly her dress caught fire and engulfed her with flames. Her husband, sleeping in the next room, was awakened by her screams. He desperately tried to put out the fire and save his wife. He was severely burned on his face and hands.
She, tragically burned, slipped into a coma the next day and died. His grievous burns would not even allow him to attend her funeral. He seemed to lock the anguish within his soul. Because he continued to work at his craft, only his family knew of his personal suffering. They could see it in his eyes and observe his long periods of silence. His white beard, so identified with him, was one of the results of the tragedy – the burn scars on his face made shaving almost impossible.
Although a legend in his own time, he still needed the peace that God gives to His children. On Christmas Day, three years following the horrible accident – at age 57 – he sat down to try to capture, if possible, the joys of the season. He began:
"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."
As he came to the third stanza he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country. The Civil War was in full swing. The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past. Days looked dark, and he probably asked himself the question, "How can I write about ‘peace on earth, good will to men’ in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother and father against son?" But he kept writing – and what did he write?
"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!"
It seems as if he could have been writing for our kind of a day. Then as all of us should do, he turned his thoughts to the One who solves all problems – the One who can give true and perfect peace, and continued writing:
"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."
And so we have the marvelous Christmas carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." A musician named John Baptiste Calkin wrote the musical setting that has helped make the carol a favorite.
Just as that Christmas in 1864 was made better for Longfellow, may we experience a Christmas that will be the greatest ever. May we actually find the peace that Longfellow wrote about in the carol – true peace with God, for this is one of His greatest gifts to us.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO YOU AND YOURS!