Longfellow and Christmas Bells
by Natalie Bright
A ‘spark’ for writers is the moment an idea is ignited in our mind. The actual words may appear that very moment as notes on a restaurant napkin, or it may be months from now. I have spark notes written on and in everything. Sticky notes, an essential tool for writers, completely cover the wall next to my desk. One statement my son made became the basis for an article published in a magazine over a year later. You just never know what those spark might become.
Where Are the Sparks?
Ideas are everywhere (check out Postcards from the Muse segments by Nandy Ekle right here on WordsmithSix Blog).
Writers find sparks in overheard conversations or by reading others written words. Pictures or art can conjure up a story idea. More often than not sparks come from a writers life experiences. Good or bad, joyous or devastating; emotions evolve into wonderful prose.
As I writer, I’m always fascinated with the history behind the spark and the environment that influences that writer’s words.
In the case of Christmas Bells, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to his poem on December 25, 1864. The music and words are lifting and it’s always been one of my favorites, bringing to mind joyous holidays past spent with my favorite grandmother.
The words actually came from a very distraught Longfellow.
Precious Fanny Longfellow
Just three years earlier, his wife Fanny had wanted to preserve her daughter’s hair clippings in wax. In a tragic turn of events, hot candle wax dripped onto Fanny’s dress, igniting it in flames. She ran into her husband’s study, where Henry tried to extinguish the blaze with a rug. He experienced severe burns to his face, arms, and hands. How they both must have suffered through that long night, only to have Fanny Longfellow die the next morning. Henry was much too ill to attend her funeral.
“A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” reads Longfellows’ journal entry for December 25, 1862.
Tragedy struck the family again in 1863 when his oldest son Charles, who was only 19 at the time, suffered a severe wound as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac. Charles had left without his father’s blessing, joining the Union cause in March of that same year.
The Christmas season of 1864 must have been a dreadful time for Longfellow, as he carried on to care for their remaining small children, Ernest, Alice, Edith and Allegra. The Civil War was raging, skirmishes had continued throughout the country as they were still months away from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, and Abraham Lincoln had just been re-elected.
From the depths of his soul he wrote “Christmas Bells”, what some believe to be a pacifist poem roused by his grief upon hearing about his son. It was first published in 1865 in a juvenile magazine.
In 1872, five stanzas were rearranged by John Baptiste Calkin and put to the tune “Waltham”. Two stanzas referencing the war were omitted, and the poem became the beloved carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
- I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
And wild and sweet their tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
- And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
- Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
- When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
- O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
- Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.