STLT#240, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

What a beautiful, bittersweet song. And, as you’ll see, somewhat appropriate for today, Memorial Day.

It is one of my go-to carols when I am feeling especially sad about the death of my own father, Richard, whose birthday was December 23 and who died on December 17, 1984. When it’s hard to remember the joy of Christmas, this carol reminds me that it’s okay to feel sad, to feel angry at the world, to recognize the complexities of life…and to still hold out hope for peace and joy.

It’s such a Universalist sentiment, reflected by a Unitarian – our more famous Longfellow, Henry. (This tells me that while the journey toward consolidation was a long one, they were at least singing from the same songbook for generations.)

This poem is witness to Longfellow’s personal loss and despair: In 1861, his wife tragically died in a fire. Then in 1863,  his oldest son, Charles, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left; just a few months later, Charles was wounded in battle. That Christmas, Longfellow wrote the poem that became our beloved lyric:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, to all good will.

I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, to all good will.

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, to all good will.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, to all good will.”

Till, ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from day to day,
a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, to all good will.

A couple of lyric notes: first, our Hymnal Commission changed “peace on earth, good will to men” in an affirmative nod to gender inclusivity. It feels unfamiliar but I’m glad they did it. Second, there are a couple of verses of Longfellow’s poems we never sing, which refer directly to the war, and which are more than reasonable omissions (and have been since this was first set to music).

And now, on to the music.

If your childhood was filled with Christmas albums, the melody you are probably most familiar with is that of Johnny Marks – a version performed by Bing Crosby, Ed Ames, Harry Belafonte, The Carpenters, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Burl Ives, Sarah McLachlan, Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, and others.  Here’s the one I hear in my head, from Ed Ames:

If you sang it in church, you might have sung it to the Waltham tune, sung here by the Heritage Choral of UMKC:

I had never heard it set to Herongate before, yet that’s the setting we have in STLT. Here’s the tune:

It’s beautiful in this setting, for sure. I’m not sure why the shift, when this is not the more familiar tunes, but I do like it. It’s just a surprise when you get to the page and open your mouth and the notes don’t go on the page where you expect. Especially before coffee.

Anyway – since those, there have also been other arrangements of this moving lyric.

It’s an amazing poem, and I am glad it is in our pantheon.

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