Musical Countdown to Christmas: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Musical Christmas4

Who was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

  • Born in Maine in 1807
  • The second child of eight
  • Enjoyed writing and planned many writing projects with his friend William Browne
  • Published his first poem at age 13
  • Attended Bowdoin College along with Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Learned seven different languages and taught French, Spanish, and Italian at Bowdoin
  • First book (travelogue) was Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1835)
  • Married Mary Potter, who died of a complicated miscarriage
  • Suffered from depression
  • Fell in love with Fanny Appleton (but Fanny didn’t reciprocate for seven long years)
  • Started teaching at Harvard University in 1836
  • Became popular worldwide as a poet and writer
  • Resigned from Harvard in 1857, a self-sustaining author
  • In 1861 Henry sustained burns trying to rescue Fanny from a house fire; Fanny died on their 18th wedding anniversary
  • In 1863 Henry’s son, Charles, ran off and joined the civil war against his father’s wishes
  • Has been described as a traveller, a linguist, and a romantic

The Story behind I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

  • Henry’s son, Charles, was a soldier in the Union Army
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words in December 1863 as he sat at the bedside of his son Charles, who was injured in the war
  • Original Title: Christmas Bells
  • You can find the full text of the poem on Hymns and Carols of Christmas
  • Watch the video below to hear more of the story and a stirring rendition of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Historical Context of the Song

  • Written in the middle of the American Civil War (1861-1865)
  • Over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in this war due to either battle or disease
  • Harriet Tubman freed slaves
  • “Missa Solemnis,” by Franz Schubert was performed in Leipzig
  • “Les Pêcheurs de Perles,” by George Bizet premiered in France

Looking for more details?

My Gift for today

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  1. Patricia on December 17, 2014 at 11:32 am

    So very nice to read the background to this song…gives the carol new meaning as we sing it. I so enjoyed reading the story of Longfellow’s son, Charles, and the Christmas Carol Soldier. Thank you again, Ruth, for delighting us with the background of these carols and allowing us to sing them once again with joy and appreciation!

    • Ruth L Snyder on December 17, 2014 at 11:59 am

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts and the music. Merry Christmas!

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