I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I was fully prepared not to enjoy this performance as I tuned in just in time to hear Dr. Phil introduce Casting Crowns on the Christmas In Washington special on TNT the other night…not because I don’t like Casting Crowns, but because that’s my favorite Christmas Carol and I wasn’t eager to hear it modernized.  Although it’s not very Christmas-sounding (except when the choir is singing), I have to admit that I was blown away by their interpretation of this song.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

According to TNT’s interview with Mark Hall:

The poetic lyrics penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow document how hope emerged from a crisis of faith the writer experienced after he lost his wife in a house fire and soon saw his son crippled in the Civil War.

“He wrote about how every year when these Christmas bells ring, it reminds him that there’s peace on earth, good will toward men,” explains Hall.  “But this time around, the reality of the world he lives in at that moment rushes in.  The verses change, and suddenly he’s saying, ‘But there is no peace.  There’s war, and there’s hate.  And this hate mocks the song of the bells.’  He’s working through his understanding of Christmas.  And as the bells keep ringing, he just has this moment when he realizes God is not dead, nor does He sleep.  Good will prevail.  God is going to save the day.”  The timelessness of the song’s potent hope-filled message is glaring to Hall—especially in light of today’s world events.  “This generation needs to hear this song,” he says.  “My kids need to hear this song.”

In a creative musical twist, Hall decided the carol’s song of the bells should actually be sung by the bells.  Thus a boys choir personifies the bells and hypnotically sings the “peace on earth” refrain.  “The bells remind us of hope,” he explains.  “And when you hear a child sing, it’s the same thing.  It reminds us today might be dark, but this is what tomorrow sounds like.”  As a resulting irony, there are no literal bells used in Hall & Co.’s version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Here is Longfellow’s original poem written in 1864, entitled Christmas Bells:

    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!

    And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom
        Had rolled along
        The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,
        A voice, a chime,
        A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    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!

    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!”

    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.”

This poem was written during the American civil war (1861-1865), as reflected by the sense of despair in stanzas 4 and 5 which speak of the battle.  It was first set to music in 1872, but the score for the contemporary version first sung by Bing Crosby was written in the 1950’s by Johnny Marks.  Marks was a Jewish American songwriter whose specialty was Christmas songs, including: Holly Jolly Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and many others.  Most hymnals omit stanzas 4 and 5.



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