A few years ago, I heard the background story of a song. Until then, the song held no meaning or value to me. It was just another Christmas song from long ago. The background story changed all that for me. From then on, that song became my favorite Christmas song and carried deep meaning for me.
Henry Longfellow wrote a poem on Christmas Day 1861 called “Christmas Bells” which later became the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow likely wrote it inspired by a glimmer of hope. Abraham Lincoln had just been re-elected and the Civil War was months from its end. In the years prior to this hopefulness, however, Longfellow experienced great personal pain and loss while the world around him seemed to be falling apart.
In the four years prior to this Christmas, America was at war with itself. His son join the fight despite not having his father’s blessing and was severely wounded in the war. Before that, Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire. The song could be applied to many different times in US history. Its message is a good one to keep in mind during the dark times in our lives. Notice the lyrics with me.
“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 then the song gives some hope as it continues in verse four.
“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 goodwill to men.'”
If tears haven’t welled up in my eyes by this far in the song every year that I hear it, when I get to the phrase in the fourth verse, they do.
“Then 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!”
What glorious hope he held! Perhaps like me, you will always remember the tragedy that inspired the song and embrace the hope that comes along with it. Have a Merry Christmas!
To read a more detailed version of the story see