Bells at Christmas time are a long standing and cherished tradition. From church bells that ring at midnight on Christmas Eve to the sound of sleigh bells in the snow, the sounds of bells and Christmas are a cherished memory and tradition. For many participants, it just isn’t Christmas until the snow falls and the sounds of Christmas music fill the air.
What is the story behind the ringing bells at Christmas? Whether they are bells in a handbell choir celebrating a favorite carol, bronze church bells calling the faithful to worship or sleigh bells simple celebrating a happy time, a long tradition of using bells is celebrated and enjoyed. While new songs and new music are introduced every year, there are some songs and melodies that define Christmas in a very important way.
Many of these songs and carols reflect the view of Christmas and the cultural emphasis of the people participating in them. There is one tradition that transcends time and culture. That is the music of the bells. The ringing of bells has been an important of celebrating Christmas since ancient times. Incorporating bells into music is not new. Bells have been used in the past to not only provide music and a sense of celebration and to ward off demons and evil spirits. Much of the origin of bell ringing was originally based in pagan winter festivals and celebrations whose purpose it was to protect the population from evil spirits.
Bells have always been rung for a variety of reasons. The ringing of bells began to gain importance during the Middle Ages. This use of bells was an effective and primary means of communication. Bell ringing was used to announce the arrivals of important personages and the start and the end of events. Bells announced special celebrations.
Later, as Saint Patrick was teaching and preaching in Ireland, he used bells to mark the beginning of the lessons for his students and also the beginning of Mass. The ringing of bells to mark the start of church services continues today. Bells have become associated with something holy, sacred and important. The practice of bell ringing was combined with other instruments such as gongs, trumpets and drums.
In Victorian times, Anglican and Catholic churches used bells as a call to worship. In these traditions, the Christian day started at sunset. The first service after sunset on Christmas Eve is important and is still observed as the first Christmas service. The bells became commonplace and announced many important events. Carolers used handbells to accompany their singing because they were easy to carry and provided a musical support. Handbells often were used as a prelude to the ritual announcement in the Christmas services of Jesus’s birth. The Eastern Orthodox tradition also has a long history of incorporating bells in their worship services.
Throughout time, churches and religious communities often had financial constraints. Bells became popular because they could be obtained in a variety of sizes – from small handbells to larger bells suitable for installation in a turret or steeple. Bells were used to announce festivals and holy days. The smaller bells could be used in processions and inside the church itself. Bells continued to announce arrivals, events and special celebrations. Bells had become a symbol and a reminder of the Lord’s work. The greater the festival or celebration, the more bells were used.
Today, bells are used in a variety of ways. They are found in secular uses in addition to being included in worship. For example, bells are included in wreaths and garlands. They decorate Santa and elf costumes. It is no wonder why today’s Salvation Army uses bells at Christmas to draw attention to their fund-raising attempts. Other secular uses of bells include decorating homes and businesses and bells are used on Santa hats and shoes for elves.
The sounds of Christmas bells and Christmas carols is primarily associated with excitement, happiness and joy. Remarkably, that hasn’t always been the case. During the American Civil War, many Christmas celebrations were muted to match the tone of the times. For example, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow became deeply depressed when one of his sons was severely wounded in battle. He penned the poem, “Christmas Bells” which then became the inspiration for the carol “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”. While that poem does not reflect the unbounded joy and excitement that many songs about bells do, it does reflect an appreciation of the long-standing tradition of bells at Christmas.
Other carols and secular songs include “Carol Of The Bells”, “Silver Bells” and “Jingle Bells”. These are songs that celebrate the tradition of using bells at Christmas. They repeat traditional stories about past and present Christmas celebrations. These traditions are important. They have been handed down in families and religious and cultural groups from generation to generation to tell and celebrate the Christmas story.
Christmas is, after all, one of the major feasts and celebrations in the overall Christian tradition. For the individuals repeating the words and music of Christmas carols and songs, there is a satisfaction and joy in repeating the words and phrases.
There are many other songs and carols such as “Carol of the Bells”, “Silver Bells”, and even “Jingle Bells” express the traditions. “Carol of the Bells” brings excitement at Christmas celebrations. “Silver Bells” heralds the beginning of the Christmas season “Jingle Bells” takes singers and listeners alike on a carriage ride full of excitement and fun.
When bells ring – it’s an alert. Something is about to happen. The bells are rung by the religious to celebrate Christ’s birth and rung by the traditionalists to mark the start of a winter festival season.
Bells have been rung in celebration and in sorrow for hundreds of years. They mark the passing of time and the changing of the seasons. The traditions of bells and Christmas may change as cultural patterns change but using bells to celebrate and remember traditions and patterns of the past will stay as a part of the on-going celebration of life.