In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father's blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. "I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer", he wrote. "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". Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia), during the Mine Run Campaign. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.
Longfellow first wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863. "Christmas Bells" was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields. References to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung.