Our Christmas Day bonus is my own personal favorite. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is unusual in that there is no reference to the Christ child, manger, Holy Family, shepherds, Magi, or even the Herald Angels. Instead if focuses on the message of those angels amid the ghastly carnage of war. It was written not by famed Unitarian hymnist Samuel Longfellow, but by his brother Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, then America’s most honored and adored poet who had created national epics like The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline as well as the school recital pieces The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and The Village Blacksmith.
|Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868.|
Longfellow was 56 years old, teaching at Harvard, and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1863. He had lost his beloved second wife, Frances Elizabeth Appleton, two years earlier in a grizzly accident when her dress caught on fire. To compound his sorrow the Civil War was raging. Like many New Englanders he was an ardent opponent of slavery but had also embraced pacifism since the Mexican War. He was deeply conflicted about the war. His eldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had enlisted in the Union Army in March against his father’s wishes and was commissioned a Lieutenant. Charles was severely wounded in November at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. The young man’s life hung in the balance.
But just before Christmas Longfellow got word that his son would survive. On Christmas morning, hearing the local church bells ring, the poet set down and wrote I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It was as much an anguished plea for peace as it was a conventional Christmas piece.
The poem was first published in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields of Boston in February 1865 as the war was entering its bloody final months.
It was not set to music until an English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody he Waltham which he had used for another hymn in 1848. Although other settings were used, Calkin’s became for many years the standard and remains the version most heard in Britain and Commonwealth countries.
In published texts of the song two of Longfellow’s verses that most directly referred to the Civil War are usually omitted making the song more universal.
In 1952 Christmas music specialist Johnny Marks departed from his usual novelty songs for children like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to create a lovely and reverent new melody for Longfellow’s words which have become the new standard in the United States. In 1956 Bing Crosby had a mid-level hit with the song and joked to Marks “You finally got a decent lyricist.”
|Burl Ives became almost as identified with Christmas music as composer Johnny Marks.|
Other notable recording of the Marks version were made by Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Burl Ives whose version we enjoy today.