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The Tragic And Hopeful Story Behind The Christmas Carol “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”

The Tragic and Hopeful Story Behind the Christmas Carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Many people have heard the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” written by by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but perhaps not all have heard the story behind it.  It provides so much meaning to the lyrics if they are understood within context.  It adds a perspective of peace to our own Christmases if they are filled with less joy than we would wish for.

Mr. Longfellow was no stranger to tragedy.  His first wife died after a miscarriage.  In 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s second wife was burned in a tragic fire and she later passed away.  Mr. Longfellow’s face became so scarred from becoming burned when he tried to save her that he could not shave thereafter.  Hence, he became known for his trademark beard.

This must’ve been a horribly traumatic way to lose a wife that was evidently very beloved to him.  Not only did Mr. Longfellow persist in courting her for years before she finally agreed to marry him, but it is evident from his writings that he loved his wife very much.  He continued to write about never fully recovering from the loss.  He stopped writing poetry for a time after her death.

To add further to his grief, he lived through the Civil War.  I do not know much about it, but I do remember enough from my history classes to know it was a brutal and bloody and awful war.   He once wrote in his journal that his one wish was harmony for the North and South.  His son joined the army despite his father’s wishes and was injured.  Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

This provides the context needed to understand several of the verses of the poem such as:

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!”

Is it any wonder he felt this way?  But, then one Christmas morning he heard the bells and what they symbolize.  He wrote:

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!….

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.”

The Hope

The bells reminded Mr. Longfellow that there is hope, even amidst the despair that he felt and the tragedies that he was living through.  They reminded him that God is not dead, even though his life probably couldn’t become much more difficult for him.  Christ descended below all things so that He can raise us up and offer peace and hope.  Maybe that comes soon, and maybe it prevails after a long while, but Mr. Longfellow certainly believed it.

The Research on Hope Through Pain

We know from research that it isn’t simply living through a depressing event that leads to depression and living in happy circumstances that leads to happiness.  Rather, like Mr. Longfellow found, we all have a remarkable ability to find hope and strength in the face of even the darkest of adversity.  (Read about Corrie Ten Boom as just one inspiring example of probably millions.)  Certainly, I recall learning in one of my psych classes that the more traumatic events you live through the more likely you will be to become depressed.  But, humans have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for growth and resilience and finding hope in the darkness.

Positive psychologists like to learn about what makes people find hope, happiness, and strengths.  Dr. Lynn D. Johnson describes in his book why pleasure is not that strongly associated with joy.¹  Interesting…So, even when people deal with difficult pains, we can still find hope and strength.

One of the hallmark studies about this concept was performed on dogs.  Dr. Seligman (a founder of positive psychology) and other researchers found that when dogs were shocked and couldn’t do anything about it then they had a tendency to give up and act depressed.²⋅ ¹  However, when the dogs learned that they could push past a barrier to stop the shock (even though the shock still occurred) they had a greater tendency to be happy.  From this and other positive psychology research we learn that we have a choice: we can either be reactors to losses and traumatic events, or we can take control of our own lives and be proactive.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t feel pair or hurt.  It doesn’t mean that we will always be happy or always be depressed based on our circumstances or how we choose to think about them.  Obviously, our lives are complex.  Rather, it means that we can turn to what gives up optimism and hope and resilience to help us through the dark times.

Psychologists like to look at protective factors, or strengths, or what makes people resilient in the face of adversity.  Ask yourself what makes you resilient and what gives you hope.  Your faith?  Your family?  Your sense of humor?  Your talent for reading and educating yourself?  Your awesome community and neighborhood?  Or a thousand other small things.  Positive psychologists have found many of these answers, but we’ll devote other more detailed blog posts to them.)

Merry Christmas

To me, the bells symbolize what Christmas is all about.  Christ is the Prince of Peace and our Advocate.  We at Family Ninjas hope that you have a very merry Christmas.  But, if it isn’t merry, may you at least find hope and peace.


¹Johnson, L. D. (2008). Enjoy life: Healing with happiness. Salt Lake: Head Acre Press.

²Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: The Free Press.

*I heard Dr. Seligman talks about the dog study in greater detail in another one of his books: Learned Optimism.

Tanya Lindquist

Tanya is a licensed clinical social worker who worked for several years at various therapy clinics before becoming a stay at home mom. She loves helping families find tools and methods they can apply to helping children overcome any challenge.

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