During the early years of our homeschool journey, the weeks leading up to Christmas were filled with turmoil as I tried (and failed!) to do it all: School, Choir practice, Co-op parties, Church Christmas events, family holiday traditions, not to mention cleaning, shopping and cooking…oh my! The “to-do” list was endless!

Trying to “do it all” drained our joy. We resolved to slow the pace during the holiday season. While family holiday plans, cleaning, shopping and cooking were predictable activities each year, our school schedule was flexible. Putting away textbooks, we relaxed the pace to enjoy unit studies, service projects and making family memories. Through the years, we participated in a wide range of service projects from assisting elderly neighbors with baking to preparing meals in a soup kitchen; Operation Christmas Child to Operation Santa (stockings for our troops) and the like.

As a family, we learned that time spent immersed in learning about the season brought a fresh perspective and peace to this busy time of year. Our studies encompassed Christmas traditions around the world, the history of Christmas carols and symbols, the Names of Jesus, plus many others as they developed over the years. While short term unit studies are plentiful on the web, it is quite easy to create your own. The beautiful aspect of creating your own is that you are able to focus on the ‘rabbit trails’ or topics that captivate your children.

In reflecting on my own family holiday memories to prepare this article, I was inspired to brainstorm and write the below brief one-day study on a traditional Christmas carol. Enjoy my unit study as a gift to you this Christmas.


I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Carol study)

Introduce your children to beloved American Poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also wrote the Song of Hiawatha, Paul Revere’s Ride and countless others. Mr. Longfellow was born in 1807 and died in 1882. Looking at the dates, ask your children, to deduce what American event he lived during. (The Civil War).

Listen to the carol together with your children. This song has been recorded on numerous contemporary and traditional Christmas albums, or is available online. After listening to it together, read aloud the original poem to your children.

Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1864

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!”

* if you feel the entire poem is too graphic for younger children, omit stanzas #4 and 5.

After reading the entire stanza, ask your children what they notice about the original poem compared to the carol traditionally sung today. (We usually sing 5 stanzas, omitted stanzas deal specifically with the horrors and despair experienced during the Civil War)

Ask your children to research Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s life and share in their own words what events inspired the Christmas Bell poem.

The events of the U.S. Civil War had a significant impact on the writing of this poem and ensuing Christmas carol. Regardless of age, children can usually understand the basics of a battle between the states. The amount of detail you wish to add will be a personal family choice depending on the age of your children. Have your children explore the Christmas experiences during the Civil War. Here are links to get them started: Christmas in 19th Century America and Ought it Not Be A Merry Christmas?

Questions to discuss or for further research:

  • How did the Union and Confederate Soldiers celebrate Christmas during the Civil War?
  • What popular Christmas traditions today were popular during the Civil War?

Sprinkle in a little science and ask your children to research the Science of bells , as well as Why the Bell is “Bell” Shaped. Older children may enjoy learning about How the Civil War changed American medicine or Civil War Technology.

At the conclusion of your unit study, have your children bake and decorate bell shaped cookies or create bell shaped ornaments from construction paper to share with family and friends. If you would like an additional service project, contact your local Salvation Army and volunteer to be a bell ringer for their Red Kettle Campaign (added bonus, research the history of the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign!).

I hope this unit study gave you a taste of ‘outside the curriculum’ learning.

Loving the one-day study idea? Create your own! Pick a favorite carol. Research its origins and historical time period. Create a new family tradition, tree ornament and service project. Enjoy the Christmas Season!