Monday, December 15, 2008


"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

This familiar Christmas song is one of my very favorites. The lyrics come directly from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow wrote it on Christmas Day in 1964, during the American Civil War. He had just received news that his son, Charles, a soldier, had been wounded. Though Charles survived his wounds, it was an especially trying moment for HWL, having tragically lost his beloved wife just two years prior. That night, Longfellow set his thoughts down in a poem.

The poem has been set to music using several different tunes. The one I grew up with and will always prefer – the 1872 melody “Waltham” by organist John Baptiste Calkin – isn’t recorded much any more. I was barely able to find anything on YouTube using it. This karaoke video, with the exception of mistakenly using “Christiandom” for the word “Christendom” is accurate to the way I remember singing and playing it on the family piano, including the replacement of the word “And” with “I” at the start of the second stanza. Also, when sung as a carol, the stanza about the war cannons is always omitted, to put the emphasis on Christmas instead of Longfellow's original anti-war intention. I for one hope this version never falls into complete disuse! I would love to hear from anyone who still sings this particularly melody in their home or church.

Christmas Bells
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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!

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!’

Video by YT member DiversiTune
Image at
From a Vatican fresco by Melozzo da Forli, c. 1980


Sylvia K said...

I had forgotten how beautiful those words are! Great video! Thank you so much for a beautiful reminder and one that we all need these days. It is cold but beautiful here today and I'm excited as the day of my son's arrival gets closer. I hope you have the beautiful, blessed holiday that you so richly deserve. Thanks for all the inspiration you have given me during my first half year of blogging!

bobbie said...

Thank you so much for this, Deborah. I love this song, and haven't heard it in years. I just stole it from you and put it on my own video blog.

Kallen305 said...

Love the lyrics. I don't know the song unless I hear it by ear and they have it blocked on my work laptop. I will check it out when I get home. I am loving your Christmas carol posts!

nina said...

So nice to reminisce here, especially at this time of year!

anthonynorth said...

I love that song. I feel all Christmassy now.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked that one as well. Makes a welcome change from pah-rump-a-pum-pum. :)

Robert V. Sobczak said...

That is a classic melody ... and the combined with the lyrics really put one in the type of contemplative state that only seems to occur during the holidays: a sense of aloneness but connectedness fused together as one.

me ann my camera said...

While listening to the familiar tune, for that is the one I remember, the piano playing took me back to all those school Christmas concerts so many years ago. First as a student myself and then as a teacher with my own excited students waiting their turn to go on stage in the jam packed gymn/ turned auditorium for that special night. The finale to all those stolen moments taken from other lessons spent in rehersal for such a special night. Very beautiful and touching.

dennis said...

Dennis has not heard this one in ages. Dennis didn't know Longfellow wrote it or the situation..

Poetry is very nice and it makes you feel.

Jeeves said...

Wonderful song. Thanks for sharing

magiceye said...


Squirrel said...

this reminds me, in a way of the song Woody Guthrie wrote --this land is Your Land, where he adds a verse that shows the struggle some people have--it isn't a land for them after all, ~ and it's good to have there verses that wake us up to the fact that our jobs will never be done, we'll always have to work hard at keeping things right and good. And celebrate goodwill when we see it.

Kathiesbirds said...

The tune on the video at the bottom is the one I know as well. Doesn't Johnny Cash sing this song as well as Johnny Mathis? I have actually never heard it sung to any other tune. Thanks for posting this. I found it very interesting.

Deborah Godin said...

@ KATHIESBIRDS - I do know that Johnny Cash recorded it, not sure about Mathis, but it seems like he sould have - I can hear it in my head in his voice.

A SQUIRREL - I'd forgotten all about the deleted Guthrie lyrics. There's a 'Canadian version' too. In fact, you just gave me an idea for a post on my other (music) blog!