‘Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men’: The Story Of A Christmas Carol


‘Peace on Earth, good will to men’

The story of a Christmas carol       CHRISTMAS


By Thomas C. Stewart – – Tuesday, December 24, 2019


ANALYSIS/OPINION:    https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/dec/24/peace-on-earth-good-will-to-men/

The carol that we now know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was originally a poem called “Christmas Bells” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. It is a song of hope that was born of despair.

The war years were a time of national tragedy for America, and personal tragedy for Longfellow. In July 1861, a few months after the shelling of Ft. Sumter, Longfellow’s beloved wife was burned to death in a freak accident. Her light summer dress caught fire while she was melting some sealing wax to preserve a few locks of her daughter’s hair. In his frantic efforts to smother the flames, Longfellow himself was so badly burned that he grew his trademark beard to cover the disfigurement. By a cruel irony, his wife was buried on the anniversary of their wedding.

Longfellow recorded some very sad reflections in his journal on the two Christmases following his wife’s death. In 1861 he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year later it was, “A ‘Merry Christmas‘ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Then, shortly before Christmas 1863, tragedy struck again. Charles, Longfellow’s oldest son, had run off to join the Union Army against his father’s wishes. The lad was just 18. He left behind a short, moving note for Longfellow in which he apologized for going to war without parental consent but added, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

Brave, idealistic young Charley very nearly made the ultimate sacrifice. On Dec. 1, Longfellow received a telegram informing him that his son had been gravely wounded in a skirmish a few days before. Longfellow and his younger son, Ernest, immediately set out for Washington, D.C., to bring Charley home. Doctors warned him that it would take at least six months for Charley to recover. Even so, he had been lucky — the wound had nearly left him paralyzed.

Longfellow’s journal for Christmas Day that year was a blank page. He could not bring himself to write a single word.

Yet, somehow he would find the faith to write “Christmas Bells,” which would become the carol that we know today:


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.


I 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.


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.”


Longfellow’s words were set to music by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872. The Calkin version remained the standard well into the 20th century. Then, in 1956, composer Johnny Marks, who gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” produced another setting of the poem. This version would be recorded by Bing Crosby, and later by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives, Kate Smith and Karen Carpenter.


Thomas Merton, the mystic, writer and Trappist monk, once observed that at Christmas time we witness and celebrate the coming of Christ into the world “even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies.” Just so. It is that faith that “Christmas Bells” proclaims.


• Thomas C. Stewart is a former Naval Aviation attack commander and a retired New York investment banker




One comment

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