Many of us have a favorite Christmas carol which we like to hear and sing throughout the season. The song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is not only beautiful but a favorite of many people. I happen to know that it is Senator Ken Yager’s best liked Christmas song; therefore, today’s article is dedicated to him.

Today, Christmas decorations and merchandise seem to appear in the stores before the Fourth of July holiday! And the Christmas of today is not always about the celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Savior, but has become so commercialized that its true meaning is sometimes lost. It seems that we find displays of the holidays before Halloween, and many people get tired of the “toy craze” and the many hours of “special” deals in the stores.

As we think back to the War Between the States, Christmas meant something entirely different to the people of our country. This war had ripped families apart and pitted brother against brother, so that the first priority was staying alive. Many did not have food to put on the table; and if they did have anything to eat it was no more than salt pork or cornmeal mixed with water. Coffee, sugar and other staples were not found any more in many parts of the South, so that a Christmas meal was very meager.

The traditions we have today, including the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, carols, candles and stockings became popular during the War Between the States. Most of these had been around since the 1850’s, and had emerged from the European countries. According to my research, the Christmas tree was present in most homes during the war, even though there was very little to decorate it with. These trees were small, sat on tables and were adorned with strings of dried fruit, popcorn, pine cones, colored paper and silver foil.

As for Santa Claus------In 1861, a German immigrant, Thomas Nast, worked as a writer and artist at Harper’s Weekly magazine. He was given the job of composing a drawing for Clement Clark Moore’s 1821 poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas. Nast created the image of Santa Claus which we have today: cherub-like, yet thin by today’s standards and bringing gifts of Harper’s Magazine to soldiers. (That was probably the first instance of commercialism associated with Christmas!) Santa always brought gifts, which were homemade, for the children. These presents might have been fruit or a hand carved toy, but the children were always appreciative for just being remembered. However, by 1863, the Union blockade of the Southern coasts would make it almost impossible for Santa to travel to Southern homes. Also, high prices and scarcity of merchandise would keep most Southerners from being able to purchase store-bought gifts, or the materials with which to make these presents. So, many mothers told their children that not even Santa Claus would be able to come to their home that Christmas Eve of 1863, because he would not be able to run the blockade. But we know that children can be very determined when it comes to Santa, so a little Southern girl, Sallie Brock Putnam, plotted the course that Santa Claus would have to take in order to avoid the Union blockade! Her story is found in Kevin Rawlings’ book, We Were Marching on Christmas Day.

Christmas carols, hymns and seasonal songs were sung during the war period, both at home and in military camps. The most popular ones during the War Between the States included the following: “Deck the Halls” (1700’s), “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” (1751), “Silent Night” (1818), “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (1840), “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (1850), “Jingle Bells” (1857), “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1857) and “Up on the Housetop” (1860).

On December 25, 1864, a new composition was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was one of the best known poets in America. This Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” was originally written as a poem containing seven stanzas. However, the two stanzas which related to the War Between the States were excluded, and the remaining five rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, who also wrote the tune to the carol. While writing this poem (later to become a Christmas carol), Longfellow was remembering the previous years of tragedy in his life, while ending the poem with a note of confidence and peace. Henry W. Longfellow and his wife, Frances Appleton were married in 1843, and were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts with their five children when the war began in 1861. Frances was fatally burned in an accidental fire in the family home in July of 1861. Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles, was severely wounded with a bullet under his shoulder blades almost two years later; however, he did live through the ordeal. It is thought that the reelection of Abraham Lincoln or the possibility that the war would soon end might have been Longfellow’s reason for writing the poem “Christmas Bells.”

The following is the original poem from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with all seven stanzas:

“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!”

After the war was over, the country was still divided, so in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a Federal holiday in an attempt to unite the North and South. And, as we celebrate Christmas this year, let us remember the most important reason for rejoicing is the birth of Jesus. Also, we cannot forget the events in history which have shaped our country and given us our holiday customs which are passed down from generation to generation. It is important for us to study these events which shaped our history so that we will be able to understand the present and be able to live in the future. We should learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

Pat Guffey can be reached at