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How the Civil War Inspired 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'

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It may not be as popular as "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a holiday classic. In case you need a refresher, here’s Bing Crosby’s rendition:

Nearly 10 years before it was a song, the composition was a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem called “Christmas Bells.” It had been a tough couple of years for Longfellow. In 1861, his wife suffered a terrible death right in front of his eyes. Fanny Longfellow had been trimming their 7-year-old daughter’s hair and decided to preserve some of the curls in sealing wax. Something went wrong during the process—some say a gust of wind blew the hot wax onto her dress, while others blame a self-lighting match—and Fanny's dress went up in flames. She ran into her husband’s study for help; he burned himself badly trying to put her out. But his efforts were for naught; she died the next morning and he was too injured to attend her funeral.

In 1863, their 17-year-old son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, ran away to enlist in the Union Army. He left his father a note, explaining, "You know for how a long time I have been wanting to go to war I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer, I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good God Bless you all."

The commanding officer knew the family and contacted the elder Longfellow, who gave his consent despite being very much against it. Charley hadn’t been in the service long when he contracted malaria and typhoid fever and had to come home to recover. Though he was gravely ill, the diseases turned out to be a blessing in disguise: While he was at home getting well, Charley missed the Battle of Gettysburg, which killed or wounded more than 51,000 soldiers. Charley returned to his post in August, and on December 1, his father received devastating news: His young son had been shot during the Battle of Mine Run on November 27, with a bullet clipping his spine. Surgeons warned the family that Charles may never walk again.

Amazingly, Charley made a full recovery. But when Longfellow put pen to paper to write “Christmas Bells,” he definitely had the horrors of the Civil War on his mind. Composer John Baptiste Calkin put the words to music in 1872, but when you hear the song performed these days, the two verses that obviously refer to the War Between the States are usually left out:

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!

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music
Everything You Need to Know About Record Store Day
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The unlikely resurgence of vinyl as an alternative to digital music formats is made up of more than just a small subculture of purists. Today, more than 1400 independent record stores deal in both vintage and current releases. Those store owners and community supporters created Record Store Day in 2007 as a way of celebrating the grassroots movement that’s allowed a once-dying medium to thrive.

To commemorate this year’s Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, a number of stores (a searchable list can be found here) will be offering promotional items, live music, signings, and more. While events vary widely by store, a number of artists will be issuing exclusive LPs that will be distributed around the country.

For Grateful Dead fans, a live recording of a February 27, 1969 show at Fillmore West in San Francisco will be released and limited to 6700 copies; Arcade Fire’s 2003 EP album will see a vinyl release for the first time, limited to 3000 copies; "Roxanne," the Police single celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will see a 7-inch single release with the original jacket art.

The day also promises to be a big one for David Bowie fans. A special white vinyl version of 1977’s Bowie Now will be on shelves, along with Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78), a previously-unreleased, three-record set. Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and dozens of other artists will also be contributing releases.

No store is likely to carry everything you might want, so before making the stop, it might be best to call ahead and then plan on getting there early. If you’re one of the unlucky vinyl supporters without a brick and mortar store nearby, you can check out Discogs.com, which will be selling the special releases online.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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