I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

This wasn’t always one of my favourite tunes of the season.  What I perceived as a plodding pace and dark minor key, didn’t express Christmas exuberance as I once preferred.

However..

That all changed when I listened to Johnny Cash’s recording of this song, and heard bright hopefulness through deep pain.

And so goes the history of this original poem by American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Longfellow’s fairly pleasant life turned upside down in 1861 when the Civil War began.  Only one day later, his wife died tragically in a home fire.  Then in 1863, he learned that his oldest son, Charles, was critically wounded in battle.   Longfellow’s journalings reveal a broken heart and despair, stating that his holidays were ‘inexpressibly sad.’

However, on Christmas Day, 1864, Longfellow truly Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and penned this poem.   Several stanzas of his original writing aren’t included in modern day hymnals, probably because of their specific references to the Civil War.   That’s regrettable, because each verse is part of a complete story.  What begins with obvious despair and grief, continues with a thread of hope, and concludes with the triumphant message of God’s faithfulness–He is NOT dead!–and only in Him is found peace on earth, good will to men.

I’ve included all the original verses, and uploaded two terrific versions of this song in the blue Music Box; one by Johnny Cash from his CD, The Christmas Spirit,  the other, by Casting Crowns on their Peace on Earth CD.

 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

 
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!”

 

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