I have to admit that I’ve never been familiar with this song. Upon re-reading this chapter from Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas that it reminds me of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” which was also written under painful circumstances.
Longfellow tragically lost his wife to an accidental death in which she burned herself alive while lighting a match. A few years later the Civil War begins and his son is wounded. His family had played a significant role in the founding of the nation and so he felt the war was unraveling the sacrifices his forebears had made. From Ace Collins’ book:
Longfellow hated the Civil War. It tore at the very fiber of his being to see the United States of America—a nation his family had fought to create and help build divided by the greed and sinful nature of man. An ardent believer in the power of God to move on earth, the poet all but pleaded with his Lord to end the madness of the war. When his oldest son, nineteen-year-old Charles, was wounded in battle and sent home to recover, the poet’s prayers turned to rage.
As Henry tended his son’s injuries, saw other wounded soldiers on Cambridge’s streets, and visited with families who had lost sons in battle, he asked his friends and his God, “Where is the peace?” Then, picking up his pen and paper, he tried to answer that haunting question. It was the ringing of Christmas bells that probably inspired the cadence found in his writing on December 25, 1863. That day Longfellow hung his whole message on the tolling of the church bells. Yet while most Christmas verse is light and uplifting, America’s greatest poet set his lyrical ode in tones that were largely dark and solemn.
In the original seven stanzas of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow focused on Christmas during the Civil War. In his lines one can easily sense the writer’s views of slavery and secession; his words divide the war into an effort of God’s love and understanding against the devil’s hate and anger. It would have been a poem completely void of hope, a testament to the power of Satan, if Henry hadn’t finished his work with two verses that embraced the thought, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.” This was a poem that would inspire not only the Union, but soon the whole world.
Almost ten years later, in 1872, an Englishman named John Baptiste Calkin decided to marry music to Longfellow’s Christmas poem. The organist and music teacher wrote a soaring melody that contained the power to not only convey the bleak imagery of Longfellow’s sadness in the poem’s tormented first few verses, but the poet’s deep and abiding faith in the ode’s exhilarating conclusion. When published, this combination of British music and American lyrics quickly made “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” one of the most popular carols in both Europe and the United States. Except for the deletion of the two verses that dwelled on the poet’s view of the Civil War, the song remains the same today as it was when first published.