I heard the bells on Christmas Day

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!”

Stanza 6 of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

This is one of my favorite Christmas hymns. The lyric is from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 during the American Civil War. When he wrote it, he was still mourning the loss of his beloved wife Fanny Appleton, who died in 1861 after her dress caught fire and she was seriously burned. For some time after that, Longfellow was unable to write poetry and instead worked as a translator.

As the war wore on, Longfellow’s son Charles decided to join the Union Army but only told his father through a letter he left for him.

I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.

From a letter from Charles Appleton Longfellow to his father, dated March 14, 1863

Charles was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run in Virginia in late November, 1863, and while he did recover, the concern over his son’s health weighed heavily on Longfellow. A few weeks later on Christmas Day, he heard church bells ringing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived, and the words to the poem that was originally titled “Christmas Bells” came to him, with the repeated phrase at the end of each stanza borrowed from the King James Bible’s phrasing of the angel’s words in Luke 2:14.

The poem contains seven stanzas, though only the first, second, sixth, and seventh are commonly sung, and some variations and additions to Longfellow’s words also exist in some versions. The most familiar music for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Johnny Marks in 1956, and his composition was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year; it was a big Christmas hit and has remained popular for over sixty years.

“Christmas, 1863” by Thomas Nast

Longfellow’s anger and frustration come through strongly throughout the poem, which contains specific references to the war in some of the verses that aren’t usually sung. But it’s the sixth stanza, the one I included above, that has always affected me the most. “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Over a century and half after the horrors of our own civil war, those words are still true. I feel Longfellow’s despair and understand his hopelessness, even though I haven’t shared his personal tragedies and loss.

He finishes his poem on a hopeful note, though:

The 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 like to think that, on balance, wrong does fail and right does prevail. (In an odd aside, this verse always reminds me of the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” where before a duel between Captain Kirk and former Starfleet officer Tracey, Dr. McCoy says to Mr. Spock: “I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”)

I also like to hope that we might eventually establish peace on earth and witness good-will among all people. I’m 57 years old and I’m still waiting, and over the past year I feel like we’re farther from that goal than ever.

Nevertheless, it is my wish for anyone who reads this tonight, tomorrow, or anytime in the future. Longfellow’s wish ought to be our collective mission statement. I wish you “Peace on Earth and goodwill to all.”