"How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."

So wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in December of 1861. He had lost his wife in July to a freak fire (he himself suffered burns that made shaving impossible, thus precipitating his trademark beard); the Late Unpleasantness had by then proved to be more than either side had bargained for. In late 1863 Longfellow nearly lost another family member-- his eldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, was seriously wounded by a bullet to the spine. There is no journal entry for that Christmas. One year later, on December 25, 1864, Longfellow composed "Christmas Bells," also commonly called "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." What exactly moved him to write it is unknown; perhaps it was Abraham Lincoln's reelection, or his son's homecoming.

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!"

The poem was put to music in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, whose arrangement drops stanzas four and five, giving us the carol most commonly known today. An excellent variant is performed by John Gorka. Gorka's version has a different (and better, in my opinion) tune and only uses stanzas one, two, six, and seven.

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