click to view original photo

Songs of Yesterday: How Our Ancestors Sang in the Holiday, Part 2

Songs of the holidays have various origins; this article examines songs that were byproducts of battle. In particular, the history behind "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," authored by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1025 (approx.)
Labels: Christmas  Holiday 
Short URL:

Editor Note: Hear the author perform Christmas Bells. To order the complete CD, see Songs of Holidays Past.

How many of our holiday songs were born of some of the worst experiences mankind has endured? I am talking here of wars. Perhaps it is because, in the heat of battle, the soldiers' hearts are turned to elements of life that bring a sense of hope: home, family, religion, and the events that tie them all together, such as our religious holidays. Except on the rarest of occasions, war knows no holiday, so when soldiers in battle realize that it is Christmas, their spirits probably experience a multitude of emotions. Possibly, that is why so many holiday songs have been "born of battle."

World War II is a perfect example of this phenomenon. With the advent of technological advances and the popularity of the movie and stage media, songs could be produced and disseminated to the masses in record time. In 1942, in the midst of the war, Irving Berlin attempted to give humanity a break from the horror with his "White Christmas," written for the movie Holiday Inn, and then reprised after the war in the movie White Christmas, focusing on post-war experiences (Collins).

The Martin and Blane song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," written for Meet Me in St. Louis, is another example of a holiday song, written during a time of despair for many. It was intended, not only as a vehicle to communicate a message in the film, but also to express hope to the American troops. Judy Garland, having been in touch with the soldiers after entertaining overseas, had some input about the lyrics. The composers listened to her and discovered her instincts were correct: the country needed this song to offer hope at a time of sadness and emptiness in many American homes (Collins).

Kim Gannon also wrote a memorable song that was spawned by the war, early in America's participation. In 1942, the 12-line poem, "I'll be Home for Christmas," uttered the words that many were praying for. Walter Kent put the poem to music and ever since, people have sung this song, expressing the desire to be with family and loved ones in a familiar setting on that special day that comes just once a year (Collins).

But this horrific war of the 20th Century is not the only conflagration that has inspired a lasting song, sung annually all across the country. On Christmas day, 1863, six months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem expressing his anguish about a nation torn apart; something especially painful at a time when people should be rejoicing about the holidays. Longfellow, as many of his fellow Americans, felt weary of the war that was rocking the nation (Grant & Wilbur). Today we continue to sing this song, consisting of five verses, put to music by J. Baptiste Calkin (Rodeheaver), but we are missing two additional verses - actually verses four and five, the original song having ordered the verses quite differently from what we are familiar with today (Charlton & Gilson).

Longfellow's genealogy shows him to have been born into a family with a rich American heritage, including at least one Revolutionary War Patriot (Maine Historical Society). It is speculated that this background made him particularly sensitive when America went to war with itself, and he did not hide his hatred of the Civil War. Charles Longfellow, the poet's nineteen-year-old son, went to fight for the cause and was wounded in battle, returning home to be nursed back to health. The scholar's strong religious beliefs were peppered with his anger at the country's condition, especially when he witnessed the families of his friends being torn apart by the war that had been going on for over two years at that point. These elements, mingled with the bells he heard that December 25th, inspired him to write "Christmas Bells," later renamed "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," with the following verses, now almost lost to obscurity:

Then from each black, accursed mouth, The cannon thundered in the South

And with the sound The carols drowned, Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men! (Charlton & Gilson)

The next verse, which is more familiar, begins "And in despair I bowed my head . . ." perhaps now giving a new meaning to that peculiar verse, which sounds so out of place in a Christmas carol. With these "new" verses included here, perhaps this will give the reader a new understanding of the darkness in which this (now considered "traditional") song of the season was given birth.

The wars in which our ancestors fought give us records of their lives, an ironic twist of fate as their experiences of horror have spawned cherished documents that can open many doors for genealogists. They are, of course, byproducts of battle. Similarly, many songs have crept into our holiday celebrations, also spawned by war. They are byproducts of battle that were created as proclamations of a desire for peace, something that all those in combat (and waiting at home), whether or not they were your own ancestors, wished and prayed for every day until one side or the other surrendered. As we sing these songs, it will add a new element to their meaning when we remember that our ancestors also sang them; but many also fought for our freedoms, including the freedom to celebrate this holiday and sing these carols at this special time of year. Happy Holidays.


Charlton, James, & Gilson, Barbara, (eds). A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories & Poems. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002.

Collins, Ace. Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001.

Grant, George, & Wilbur, Gregory. Christmas Spirit: The Joyous Stories, Carols, Feasts, and Traditions of the Season. New York: Gramercy Books, 1999.

Maine Historical Society. "The Family of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Maine Historical Society Website. Accessed 9 December 2009, from

Rodeheaver, Ruthella (compiler). Christmas Customs and Carols. Winona Lake, IN: The Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co., 1941.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles