“I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day; The Story Behind the Song

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived during our nation’s bloody Civil War. While living in Massechusetts, Longfellows beloved wife Fanny decided to trim the locks of her daughter’s hair on a hot July day. Fanny decided to save the locks of hair and preserve them in an envelope. She lit a candle and let the hot wax drip on the envelope to seal it as was custom in those days. As she tilted the candle to drip the hot wax on the envelope, a strong breeze blew through the window causing the hot wax to drip on her dress and ignite. When her dress caught on fire, she ran to her husband’s room. Longfellow tried to put the fire out with his own body and was burned in the process. Fanny experienced severe burns throughout her body. Early the next morning she died. Henry was devastated. Not long after he heard his son was wounded in battle. Heaviness gripped Longfellow’s heart and he wrote to his family near Christmas and said, “The children all wish you a Merry Christmas, but it will not be a Merry Christmas for me.” After nearly four years of grief Longfellow arose on Christmas to hear bells from a church tolling in the distance. Henry began to sense the presence of God in his life once again.

Longfellow was inspired. He took his pen and wrote the following words to a familiar Christmas song. Follow the words carefully. Maybe you have been struggling grief. The Lord is able to lift you from grief and despair.

Merry Christmas,



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.

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.”

Historical Note: This hymn was writ­ten dur­ing the Amer­i­can civil war, as re­flect­ed by the sense of des­pair in the next to last stan­za. Stan­zas 4-5 speak of the bat­tle, and are usual­ly omit­ted from hymn­als:

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.







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