Monday, November 29, 2010

Bells on Christmas

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’m back in the choir for Christmas and hopefully beyond, and guess what? I’m a soprano this year. I’m in full-fledged diva mode. I’ve been listening to my Mariah Carey Christmas album and yesterday, in a moment that nearly sent the dog into a full-fledged panic attack (the Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!), I hit a high C. It’s all about air, people. Air in the gullet. (I’m not going to say it sounded pretty, or even socially appropriate, but it was a high C.)

I was pleased to find out that we are singing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which is my husband’s favorite carol. I wrinkled my nose when I saw it was NOT the original version, but some newfangled adaptation by the band Casting Crowns.


It is possible that I was born with a very old and cranky soul. Why take a perfectly gorgeous melody and toss it aside for something that is, in my not-so-humble opinion, mediocre? (For the record, the 50’s adaptation by Johnny Marks, who is most notably the author of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is okay, but Calkin’s melancholy version written in 1872 is the original, and I think, the best. And I’m not even going to tell the story of the day I found “Adagio for Strings” set to techno music on YouTube. There was a hissy-fit of epic proportions.)

The words to “Bells on Christmas Day” were written by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at the tail-end of the Civil War. Several years before, in 1861, Longfellow lost the love of his life, his wife Fanny, in a tragic accident. After cutting her daughter’s hair during a heat wave, Fanny Longfellow decided to preserve the cuttings in some wax, which dripped onto her dress. A breeze from the window set her dress on fire, and in order to protect her children, Fanny ran into the next room, where Henry frantically tried to extinguish the fire with a small rug. When this failed, he threw himself around her, burning himself in the process.

Fanny died the next morning. Henry, recovering from his own burns, was too injured to go to her funeral. His beard remained full and long because his injuries kept him from ever being able to shave his face without excruciating pain.

Longfellow’s journal, Christmas 1861: How inexpressibly sad are all holidays. I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.

Longfellow’s journal, Christmas 1862: A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me.

In 1863, Longfellow received word that his oldest son had been severely injured and permanently disabled in battle. His journal that Christmas is silent.

In 1864, on Christmas day, he writes the poem “Christmas Bells":

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!"

I have never known such sorrow. I can’t imagine what went on in his heart that would bring him from bitterness and misery to hope and faith. It was, in short, some sort of miracle.

And you should all probably know that as I write this, I am listening to Adagio for Strings and crying like a baby. (I have a very sentimental, cranky old soul.)

Here's hoping your have a blessed start to the Christmas season!

Johnny Cash actually sings the Calkin melody; so do the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They seem to be in the minority.


Toaster said...

I like the new Christmas holly theme for the blog! Hope you had a good Thanksgiving; when are we getting together again?

Jessica said...

That is such a sad sad story about his loss. I too do not enjoy when new fangled versions of most songs.

Sandy Ting said...

This is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Despite all the sadness and heartache in the world, the Lord is Sovereign over all and it's under His control and care.

I love your Christmas themed page too! I too am a purist when it comes to Christmas music. Give me the classics
Handel, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole etc.

Holly said...

Soon, Toaster! I hope! The header's a little busy, but I tend to go overboard decorating at Christmas time!

Thanks for the comments, ladies! They are encouraging!

greenlizard said...

I LOVE hearing the history of carols, hymnns, etc... Truly amazing. Thanks for sharing! I'll never listen to that song the same way again!

Traci Michele said...



Holly said...

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Embejo said...

Thank you! Thank you for posting the story behind this carol...I had goosebumps all over me as I read it. Like you I have never known such sorrow and I always think if such things happened to me I couldn't go on living...the miracle is that he lived and wrote words of hope.
Thank you. I will play it loud today (the old melancholy version)

MGBR said...