Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War and the news of his son Charles Appleton Longfellow having suffered wounds as a soldier in the Battle of New Hope Church, VA during the Mine Run Campaign. He had suffered the great loss of his wife two years prior to an accident with fire. His despair in the following years was recorded in his journal.
The poem has been set to several tunes. The first tune was set in the 1870s by an English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, to his composition “Waltham”. Elvis Presley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Jimmie Rodgers have recorded this version. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to the 1845 composition “Mainzer” by Joseph Mainzer. Johnny Marks, known for his song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer“, set Longfellow’s poem to music in the 1950s. Marks’ version has been recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Ed Ames, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Sarah McLachlan, Pedro the Lion, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, The Carpenters, MercyMe, Bing Crosby, and Bette Midler. Marks’ composition is now generally accepted as the de facto version and is generally what is used for modern recordings of the song, though Calkin’s version is still heard as well. In 1990, John Gorka recorded his arrangement entitled “Christmas Bells”, which uses stanzas 1, 2, 6, and 7 of the poem. In 2008, Mark Hall, lead vocalist of Casting Crowns, recorded his own arrangement, which was released on their Christmas album, Peace On Earth.