“Christmas Bells”: Longfellow’s Holiday Poem of Hope Amidst Despair

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), the most widely known and best-loved American poet of his time, was deeply sorrowed when he put pen to paper on Christmas Day, 1863.

He was still grieving the tragic death, just two years earlier, of his beloved wife Fanny, who died of burns received when packages of locks of her children’s hair, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame and caught her dress on fire. Longfellow tried unsuccessfully to save her by smothering the flames with a rug, and was burned so seriously he was unable to attend the funeral. He turned to ether and laudanum to ease his physical and emotional pain.

After Fanny’s death, Christmas lost its joy for the poet. On Christmas Day, 1861, he wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following Christmas he recorded, “’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written


While he was a staunch abolitionist, Longfellow was also a pacifist. By the time Christmas arrived in 1863, the American Civil War had been raging for more than two years, and had taken a decidedly personal turn for the poet. Earlier that year, against Longfellow’s wishes, his elder son, Charles, 18, had joined the Union Army. In November, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. He was brought home to recuperate on December 8.
Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863

Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863


Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1863. The poem tells of the narrator’s despair upon hearing Christmas bells, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” It concludes with the bells carrying a message of renewed hope for peace among mankind.
Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863


The poem was first published in 1865. It was set to music in 1872 by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, becoming the carol with which we are familiar. In his version Calkin removed the stanzas relating to the war, a purge that diluted Longfellow’s powerful message. The poem follows in its original form.

—Lynne Adele

Christmas Bells

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!

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.”

Advertisements