“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve, I thought I would tell you a story. It’s a story about one of the most beloved of all the Christmas songs we sing this time of the year.

Christmas Eve services at Harvest

Speaking of Christmas Eve, we will be having live services at Harvest today.

Our Christmas eve services will be at 4:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M. It will be a musical retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus. I will also share a brief message to help us focus on the real “reason for the season.”

These services will be webcast live and will be available in our archives. You might want to watch this service as a family.

The sadness of the holidays

One of the most familiar songs we hear during the holidays is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the story behind it is interesting.

In 1860, Longfellow was at the peak of his success as a poet. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected President, giving hope to many.

But things soon turned dark for America and for Longfellow personally. The Civil War began the next year, and Longfellow’s wife died in a tragic accident in their home. Longfellow suffered severe burns on his hands and face while trying to save his wife.

He was so badly burned that he could not even attend her funeral.

Sorrow at Christmas

In his diary for Christmas Day 1861, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” In 1862, the toll of war began to mount, and in his diary for that year Longfellow wrote, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.”

In 1863, his son–who had run away to join the Union army–was severely wounded and came home in December. There is no entry in Longfellow’s diary for that Christmas.

A new Christmas song is born

Longfellow wanted to pull out of his despair, so he decided to try to capture the joy of Christmas in verse. He began:

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.

As he came to the third stanza, he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country. The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past. Days looked dark, and he probably asked himself the question, “How can I write about peace on earth, goodwill to men in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother, and father against son?”

God is not dead

But he kept on going, and wrote in the sixth stanza:

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.”

But then, catching an eternal perspective and the real message of Christmas and Christ Himself, he wrote in the final stanza:

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.”

That’s right, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!”

If you want a blessed Christmas Eve tonight, focus on that.

11 thoughts on ““I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day””

  1. customessays says:

    nice post

  2. neetlefoeds says:

    Thank you!

  3. Accounting says:

    I fully agree with the author.

  4. maricho nuÑez says:

    hi sir greg! my name is maricho.
    i am a believer of the Lord Jesus.I am a filipina. I have been listening to ur preaching for two years now over DYVS the sweet voice of salvation in Panay Island,Philippines.your preach is aired daily at 6pm.I always make it sure not to miss one.I’m blessed by your topics and the way you use insights is basically personal of how i can godly live with.

  5. Mariana says:

    Hi, Pastor Greg!

    Thanks for sharing. I have heard part of the story of this song before, and just loved it the first time I heard it, around a year ago, and now it is one of my favorites.

    I’ve used the line “God is not dead, nor does He sleep” several times to remind me those two qualities of our God that no other god has (pretty cool once you think of it, really think of it), and I’ve used it too to evangelize some friends. Though I haven’t reaped any fruits from them yet, I keep sowing, for as¨our Lord inspired Paul, “our work for Him is not in vain.”

    Be of good cheer, for we are to be thankful and cheerful all of the time =)

    God Bless you.

  6. Coleene says:

    I lost my son on February 27, 2007. I have written you before. He was 26. This is our second Christmas without him. I have taken up writing as a healing ministry for myself and others, and this Christmas note was published again in the Chino Champion. I am a faithful reader of your blogs and daily devotionals and Harvest attender. Thank you for you encouragement and example of how we all go on with God’s strength despite our pain here on Earth, and that our sons’ lives and deaths do have purpose.

  7. Linda says:

    Greetings Greg, Cathe, and Jonathan,

    It’s good to spend time at church. We loved the service tonight. Thank you for all you do. The potter is making something beautiful out of your clay. As I was praying for you last night, a study that you taught came to mind. God has deposited into our bank account everything we need. We just have to withdraw it. You know, sorrow has a funny way of reminding us that the one thing we only need is God Himself. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father. I am reminding myself in this hard season that I have everything I need I just need to make the withdrawal.

    God Bless you. We are praying for you.
    The Daltons

  8. Anonymous says:

    Merry Christmas to you, Pastor Greg, and to your family and to all my fellow bloggers here. Christmas is now 1 hr and 30 min old here in the East Coast (DE). Be safe, everyone. Keep in mind the object of our celebration, i.e, the birth of our Savior, Christ Jesus our Lord.

  9. June says:

    Great story, thanks.
    God is good, no matter what.

    Great Christmas Eve service, too.
    Harvest worship rocks!

    We are praying for you and your family, Pastor Greg.

  10. Simon says:

    Blessed Christmas, Pastor Greg

    May you have a great and blessed 2009.

    Simon Chong

  11. Melanie says:

    Merry Christmas Pastor Greg and family!

    I saw the post on Facebook about the new grandbaby (I am so sorry I forgot her name!)…. congrats to all of you on her arrival!

    Anyway, I pray for an abundance of peace to all this Christmas.
    God bless you!

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