This carol is based on the poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote the poem in 1863 in the aftermath of the news that his son, a lieutenant in the American Civil War, had been wounded in battle. Longfellow had lost his wife two years before in an accidental fire. Thus the poem was written during a time of national crisis and personal loss. I can remember hearing this carol sung in church when I was a teenager. I suppose it was partly that I was growing from a childhood view into an adult view of Christmas, but I remember being impressed by the admission of doubt and despair over the hate and wrong in the world at a time when one wants to celebrate peace and hope.
The carol has been set to a number of tunes. I tried to find one with the hymn tune (WALTHAM) that I was familiar with, but could not find that version. Harry Belafonte does a sensitive rendition of the song set to a 1950s tune written by Johnny Marks (better known for writing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).