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Christmas Bells

by Jennifer Martin


Our 1st through 5th grade students have been memorizing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells.” Many of us are familiar with selections of the poem since it has been made into the famous Christmas song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” However, the poem itself is not as commonly known, and there is an interesting story behind it that is worthy of our attention. It is a story of perseverance, justice, and hope.

Henry Wadswoth Longfellow, Anthem Classical Academy, Fayetteville, Northwest Arkansas
Henry Wadswoth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a famous American poet of the nineteenth century. He was also an abolitionist. He often wrote poems about the Civil War and his hopes for slavery’s end. This is the backdrop in which “Christmas Bells” was written. As much as Longfellow had been a supporter of the Union, he did not want his son, Charles, to serve as a soldier because he was afraid Charles might never make it back home. Nevertheless, Charles joined the Union’s fight, without Longfellow's knowledge, and he served until he was injured terribly in November of 1863. When Longfellow went to retrieve his son, he wrote “Christmas Bells.” Longfellow’s poem encapsulates the suffering the Civil War had caused on both a personal and national level. But Longfellow’s poem also expresses the resiliency of good and its victory over evil. The shift between these ideas is evident throughout the poem. In the first three stanzas, the tone is joyful; the Christmas bells ring to remind mankind that Christ became flesh to bring goodwill and peace to men. Here is a well-known excerpt:


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!


The tone of the poem changes in the fourth through sixth stanzas. It becomes somber. Longfellow explicitly mentions the war, as he states that the ringing of the cannon blast drowns out the bells that sing of peace on earth. If the poem had ended at the sixth stanza, there would be an entirely different meaning:

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!"


The tone shifts once more in the last stanza of the poem to reveal an important truth: hate does not win and evil does not prevail because there is a God who is more powerful than both. This is good news!

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."


The students have really captured the joy of this last stanza, as they have been reciting it with loud yet clear voices, smiling faces, and eyes that light up with excitement. They cannot help but use hand motions to express the truth and power behind these lines. Christ has defeated evil, and He will right the wrongs in the world, much like the poem says! We hope you enjoy the poem and that it reminds you of the powerful hope we have as Christians. If there is anything we can pass on to our children at Christmas, let it be the message that they too can have this hope. The same hope that Longfellow had even in the midst of trials. The only hope that can bring peace, justice, and goodwill to man.


Merry Christmas from the Anthem family! You can read the poem in its entirety below:



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!

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!

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."


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